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Doing Business in China

Doing business in China can be rather challenging. Not only are the Chinese tough negotiators, there are also many pitfalls when it comes to scheduling and attending meeting, doing small talk and gift giving. Read our guide to doing business in China and learn all there is to know.
Follow the proper protocol when dealing with your business partners and your career in China will be a success.

If you are from a western country and have just moved to China, you will be surprised to learn how many things there are to keep in mind in order to avoid faux pas. While your expat friends will be patient about any of your cultural mishaps, your Chinese business partners might not. So take the time to learn a thing or two about business etiquette in China.

Business Etiquette in China

Before you dive head-first into China’s business world, it is essential that you understand the Chinese culture and know how to behave when dealing with your Chinese business partners. After all, knowing how to act during meetings and business dinners could just make or break your career abroad. Let’s take a look at the most important points regarding business etiquette in China.

Building Business Relationships

Guanxi, or business relationships, are essential for doing business in China. No matter if you are looking for a job, want to close a deal, or work as a freelancer, you will need the right contacts to establish yourself in China’s business world. These relationships are usually very professional und you should conduct yourself accordingly.

Of course, you can find someone to function as an interpreter in the beginning but eventually it will be easier for you to establish trust and confidence if you are able to speak the language. After all, small talk is the key to establishing a successful business relationship. Make sure to not talk business at first. Instead, give your prospective business partners a chance to get to know you as a person. Choose positive conversation topics and make sure to avoid controversial topics relating to politics and religion.

Another thing you should avoid is too much physical contact. Do not put your arm around the other person or even touch their shoulder casually (unless they do so first and demonstrate that they are comfortable with the situation).

Hierarchies in Chinese Culture

Hierarchies, determined by age, experience, and social status, are very important in Chinese culture and have to be respected. For instance, you should always greet the most senior person first upon entering a room and always make sure to refer to people by using their full title and name.

It is possible that you need to work your way up the food chain to get to the person in charge. Remember that not losing face (the concept of mianzi) is very important in China. Even if you are used to a more aggressive approach in doing business, you need to be patient and humble. Don’t interrupt your business partners or even say ‘no’ directly, as this is considered incredibly rude. At the same time, keep in mind that your business partners might not understand you as well as you think if the meeting is conducted in English. They might nod, smile, and agree with you simply to save face.

While mid-level managers might be excited about your ideas and business approach, decisions are usually only made at the top. It is absolutely important that you do not, under any circumstances insult your Chinese business partner. Be patient and respect the hierarchy.

Exchanging Business Cards

As in many Asian countries, there is a proper etiquette when it comes to exchanging business cards in China. It is not merely about giving your business partner your contact information (and receiving theirs in return) but about a representation of your status and character.

First of all, your business cards should be printed on both sides, with your information in English on one side and in Chinese of the other. Make sure that your title and status is included on them and that they are in good condition.

Business cards are usually exchanged at the beginning of a meeting. It is customary to present them with both hands, the Chinese side facing up. Upon receiving a card yourself, it is important to consider it for a moment and to then place it in a case or business card holder. Under no circumstances should you toss it in your bag, shove it in your pocket, or, god forbid, write on it. This would show a huge lack of respect and can, in fact, put an end to a business relationship before it has even begun.

Dress Code

It is customary to dress formally for business meeting with high-level managers. This way you show that you are serious and respect your business partners. On some occasion, like a big summer heat wave, you might be allowed to dress more casually which usually means a polo shirt or a short-sleeved button-down shirt.

In general, you should dress conservatively and modestly. Make sure to avoid revealing or inappropriate clothes, especially during meetings with your Chinese business partners. If in doubt, look to other expats and your colleagues in China for some pointers.

Gift Giving

Presenting your Chinese business partners with a gift is customary but, as always, there is a proper etiquette that you need to follow. Typically, you present the person-in-charge with a single gift from your delegation. Remember to always present gifts with two hands. The recipient of the gift will initially refuse but eventually accept if you are persistent.

Your gift should not be too expensive and appropriate for the kind of business relationship you hope to establish. For instance, something that is unique to your home country is a good idea if you hope to establish a business relationship between your employer at home and your Chinese business partners.

The end of your introductory meeting or your first business dinner is the right moment to present your hosts with a gift. Try to avoid colors which are commonly associated with death such as white and choose red or gold instead. Clocks, knives and letter openers also don’t make very good gifts.

You can learn more about these topics from our article on Chinese customs and etiquette.

Meetings and Negotiations in China

It is important to schedule and confirm meetings way in advance. Try to avoid national holidays, like the Chinese New Year, when you set a date. Punctuality is key on the day of the actual meeting! If you want to be on the safe side, arrive a little bit early. Late arrivals are considered an insult and should be avoided at all costs.

Negotiating and Dealing with Chinese Business Partners

It is a good idea to set and communicate an agenda before any meeting. Try to get directly to the main point of your presentations and tackle smaller details later. Make sure to know who you are dealing with. This applies both to the company as well as the individual managers you are negotiating with.

The Chinese tend to be tough negotiators, even if they present themselves as the weaker party by showing humility and deference. Gaining concessions is the main goal of many of your business partners. It is, therefore, important that you show a willingness to make compromises, while still standing your ground. Try to be clear and precise in your presentation.

Sometimes, business is made rather slowly in China. At no time should you show any anger or frustration, or rush your business partners. Practice your “poker face” in front of the mirror, if you have to.


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