Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/12/01/doing_biz_in_china/

The biz of biz in China (Part 1)

Avoid the fried squid

By David Feng

Posted in Business, 1st December 2007 01:30 GMT

Mind the Gap Saturday Mind the Gap Saturday is a feature every Saturday where Blognation China tells its readership the differences - the gap - in the tech, mobile, and enterprise worlds between China and the Western World.

How does business - and corporate culture - work in a People's Republic of 1.3 billion? Whether it's a startup, small or medium enterprise (SME), or a long-established company, here's the start of Blognation China's two part look at the "biz of biz" in China.

Draw your line

The line between commander and obeyer, instructor and the instructed, boss and employee has never been clearer than in China. And it's no big surprise. If the whole Chinese system is of any clue, it's that the big boys at the top gain a seat - and once they do that, rule the country or the company from that spot "high up" there. This has been the way things were done for millennia on end. Change is, of course, coming, but only slowly. For generations, the Chinese have come to understand that if you're ordered to do something, that thing gets done with the least bit of protest.

Chances are, the big-bossism, or laozongism (named after the Chinese word for "big boss", laozong (老总)), is still alive and well. People either fear or come to not like the laozong when the going gets tough. The name of the laozong is sometimes referred to with an expression of displeasure or disdain. Yes, the boss ordered this, but it may not be the smartest idea out there.

If the "boss ordered this", however, it's pretty much done without a fight. People are under the idea that a fight with the boss would be futile - and, at the very worst, could result in that instantaneous pink slip.

The emotions matter

So how do people deal with their laozongs? Believe it or not, some get downright emotional with them. We're not talking about weeping at the boss's feet when the going gets tough, but in China emotions are sometimes so important that they overshadow the legalese - and the rules (that's sometimes a good thing, and at times could be a really bad thing).

Countless employees sacrifice their twopence just to get closer to the seemingly inapproachable laozong. They do their best to please him or her (I once worked for a lady laozong, by the way). A smile on the side of the laozong, or a nod at that, does wonders to brighten many an employee's day.

Emotions matter for another cause: it does its bit in building trust (even if at first fragile, it can easily solidify provided there's a clear effort). When things get rough, the laozong isn't that likely to take someone who he or she knows is with him or her to task. Someone might get a "fried squid" (chao you yu (炒鱿鱼); that's Chinese for getting the pink slip), but if you're on good terms with Mr or Ms Laozong, your chances for being the fried squid are less if there are good emotional connections between you two.

Prepare to be a jiabanist

How many times have I asked fellow Mac user group people to come to a meeting? And how many times was the answer, "Nope, I'm jiaban right now!"? If I could get a penny for every jiaban excuse (lame or well-grounded they may be), I could easily be on my way to a Porsche Boxster.

Jiaban (加班) - Chinese for doing overtime work - is, in essence, an almost-inalienable part of working in China, in particular for locals. Locals type away at their office computers on Saturdays and, at times, on Sundays as well. Social events are sacrificed in favour working overtime, as overtime pay can bring that extra yuan or two in.

To many a Westerner - a committed nine-to-fiver - overtime work is probably something more close to an emergency break - pull (and work overtime) only if you must. The Chinese pull this break, however, at an alarming rate. A Western jiaban "emergency break" (so to speak) remains in almost pristine condition through the course of a year, while the Chinese version looks like the kid toyed around with it too much.

Jiaban is likely to happen more in startups and SMEs as they have quite a bit of work to deal with. This is not to say that big, established companies don't do jiaban, but as with all things - starting up is hard to do (or to do well, at that), so it's not really that much of a surprise if a startup has to work excess hours just to get something rolling.

Much do about nothing

So what happens inside the average Chinese office? As yours truly experienced it in person, surprisingly little in terms of real, decent work being done. While refilling his cup of warm tea at the work place this time last year, he found his co-workers watching Taiwanese comedy shows, lying on the sofa, or chatting with friends (not fellow colleagues) using MSN/Windows Live Messenger or QQ.

Scarier stories come from state-owned enterprises, where the über-unproductive idea of "paying you something even if you do nothing" holds true. If you're on an internship, you pretty much get the lion's share of time free, but stuck inside an office.

This apparent low rate of productivity could turn into something meatier (and it's not good for China), and could put the brakes on the whole system. In fact, the whole thing's gone to such an extent that some companies spy on what their employees are up to (privacy is not that big of a term in China as is the case in the West).

When the you at work transcends into the private you

In the West, we're used to keeping at least two boxes of contacts; those we meet at the workplace, and those we meet back at home. If it's 5pm (or 6pm), you leave the office, and that's the end of you in employer/employee form. You return home to your wife or husband and kids, and that's you in your private (secluded?) version.

In China, however, it's not rare that the nine-to-five you continues after 5pm. Weekend calls from fellow colleagues are only recently being targeted as somewhat intrusive, and working on Sundays is not forbidden - some people (including yours truly!) work non-stop, seven days a week!

The only time that the nine-to-five you is concealed is during week-long holidays, in particular Chinese New Year. Right before the start of the New Year, new projects are concluded, work is finished at incredible speed, and when the fireworks light up the sky, Chinese biz people know that they have at least seven full days to tune out of their 9-to-5 selves.

Yours truly mixes both worlds. On Sundays, of course, he phones nobody except for his fellow Mac group friends (as he presently considers this a hobby) and his close friends. However, if he gets a work-related call (he never initiates one), this call is answered immediately and without delay. Work continues on an individual basis on Sundays with nary a hitch, but no new business-related correspondence is written; a day is given to everyone else to take a break, and plug out, while he continues with reduced work.

'Sharpen your knifes before a fight'

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves in China for the Big End-of-the-Year Biz Rush. From November every year until Chinese New Year in the new year (western or Chinese), the last quarter of a year is likely to be that time of year when jiaban occurs at such frequencies that you're one to concede that this is one real seven-by-seven, 24 by 24 nation.

What happens around this time of the year is there exists a tonload of work. Some people (especially the faithful corporate viewers of many a Taiwanese comedy show) have accumulated more than enough work. Knowing that all of this has to be finished before the year is out (unless being poor or pink [as in "getting the pink slip"] sounds attractive to them), they surrender nights and weekends during this final quarter and work their bottoms off.

Also, most of us like to close out a year on a good note. What about those things we've promised to do, but haven't touched on yet? And finally, what about that last minute partnership agreement that just chimed in? Add all of these together, and the busy final quarter suddenly starts to make some sense.

This strategy, known to many a Chinese as "sharpen your knifes before a fight" (临战磨枪), is also common currency to Chinese university students. Being in essence fed with dozens of pages of notes, those students yell it out at KTV bars (having suffered through five full days of classroom bore) until the looming exams make their mark felt. They then shun the microphones and the beer for the late-night "lightening-speed revision courses" that sees many a university building alive even after sundown, and in a matter of weeks, cram their heads with all that edu info and - hopefully pass the exams.

The fun bit: teamwork

Working in a Chinese company, however, is not all that gloomy. Not all bosses are evil, and not all work is difficult or impossible to complete. And at the end of the day, you get the fun and pleasure of working in a team.

Company hangouts, corporate sing-a-longs, outings, and hiking trips with the boss and your fellow colleagues: these alone make the hard work kind of pay off (in particular in a social factor). You get to meet great people, and you work together as a team to reach common goals - as in, to finish what you've been given with flying colors.

You never know what you get when you're with a team - and this holds true in particular for yours truly. Being a media student at university (for postgraduate studies), he was an intern at the Beijing branch of a Chinese TV station. In one of those company socials, he was suddenly called upon to be the host for a surprise wedding ceremony. No problem: he did what he had to do - right away. A bit of fun - a bit of something unexpected - but the best thing (and the most rewarding thing) was that he got to meet great new people, and have a good time together.

Who said teamwork wasn't fun?

Next week on Mind the Gap Saturday: We continue our look at the biz of biz in China, and share with you some values and good practises that will get you ticking in a Chinese company. See you next Saturday.

Copyright © 2007, Blognation.com.

This article first appeared on Blognation.