Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/12/08/biz_china_part_two/

The biz of biz in China (Part 2)

Find a friend

By David Feng

Posted in Business, 8th December 2007 08:02 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.

So you know what kind of a feared corporate animal the "fried squid" is, heard that your friend has fallen victim to yet another jiaban, laughed along to the rare Taiwanese laughathon between nine and five (you should have been crackin'!), and "sharpened your knives before a fight".

What's next? The second installment of The biz of biz in China on Mind the Gap Saturday - on Blognation China, of course. Now that you know what the Chinese workplace offers you, here's what you need to know about integrating into the workplace.

Collectivist corporate China

By all means, it feels cool to swing by your Beijing office all dressed up the way you do back home. You're yourself, you've been yourself in the West, so why not be yourself in the east, too? They'll eventually recognize your efforts, so you can probably get away with a bit of (controlled) arrogance. And, oh, the team; half the time, they don't know what they're on about.

If you come to the People's Republic in that kind of a mood, however, be prepared to be sent back to the airport! In the nation of 1.3 billion, collectivism - or doing things in groups - is more like the order of the day. It's not that individuals are treated like total robots or neglected, but in China doing things in groups is more what you'll be after, day in day out.

Once you realize that you do need to work in a group, however, you'd do yourself (and the group, at that) a big favor by fitting in as much as possible.

That's not a cue for you to dump what makes you you, though, but in short, if you can balance the "you" with the interests and conformity of the group, you've pretty much made it. If you're trustworthy, honest, reflective, generous, and sensitive, you can make it easily in the Middle Kingdom. Keep your assertive, strong and outgoing self from the Western world - but do note that they may need quite a bit of tweaking.

Please mind the gap between the boss and the employee

The gap between the boss and employee is, as I mentioned last week, gaping at the very least. Although companies operated by the haigui (overseas Chinese) who are back on the mainland may be more democratic, the fact is that most companies in China are still very much a boss-ordered-this world. The difference between boss and employee is bigger than you think.

So what's the magical ladder closing the gap between the two? Emotions, that's for sure, but also trust and reliability. Do your stuff right, be on time and contribute, and always be right behind the man at the top - support your company. Tell the boss that you're in for the long run and that you want to make the company great. By that, we need to see action, not just mere words.

Having said all that, respect and obedience are still very much two things that will make many a boss's day. It's not that corporate dissent is totally verboten, but if an employee clashes with the boss, the chances of scoring the dreaded fried squid (Chinese for the pink slip) are higher in the PRC than in foreign lands. In China, authority is more pronounced - Chinese bosses (especially those in state-owned enterprises) don't like to be challenged.

The silence of a storm

Judging by how often a Chinese utters the word "yes" to just about every request, it would be too simple - and sometimes naïve, and at other times just plain crude and rude - to brand the locals as "yes-men". There's a big cultural "thing" that makes 99 per cent of locals say "yes" 99 per cent of the time, and that's because they don't want to start a storm.

At times, locals will intentionally say "yes" to even the most absurd idea out there. There's a big reason for this - locals hate to dezui (得罪) each other (and dezui could be translated to something as easy as to "p"-off someone else). The idea of spending Saturday at the office instead of in front of the karaoke machine may be the most stupid proposal the China branch of Acme Incorporated may have come up with, but (in particular) if the boss said so, no employee would dare think of vetoing the proposal.

Those in power would equally be wrong to treat every "yes" at face value (this is something that foreign bosses in China often fall into - they seem to take everything at face value. Not their bad - after all, more things are at face value in the West). Sometimes, going through a third person to ask if the idea was brilliant or brain-dead could yield a more frank answer - and do note that the vast majority of Chinese do not speak their minds (they want to say what you'd like to hear, which could produce quite a wide gap with how things actually are in reality).

If you smell something wrong, hold them horses as soon as possible, and inquire or change course. Storms in the Chinese biz world can tend to be on the silent side - sometimes, you can hardly make out their imminent arrival - but once they're there and especially once the lid pops open, it can get downright nasty.

Relations: Distance, not boxes

Here's a fundamental difference: In the West, we're used to sticking our colleagues, friends and allies in boxes. There's the box for the company, the box for the bar, the box for pretty much everything. You're either in the box or you're out. Black and white, virtually no space left for shades of grey (or very rarely at that).

Distance, though, is how the Chinese see relations. The Chinese are in no rush to stick their colleagues and pals in boxes. A client that has not been in touch with the company for a decade is never thrown out of the box; the Chinese prefer to think of him or her as "far" rather than being too "near". You share your skeletons in the closets with your "nearest" friends, while you can feast over some Tsingtao Beer with some friends that appear "far" and that you want to pull back into your circle of friends.

Yours truly is a big advocate for the distance-based relationship idea. He never dumps friends in the dumpster - no, that would be too inhumane. And he goes out of the way to be nice and approachable even to friends he hasn't met for about five years or so.

By the way, gifts play a big role in Chinese society. If you felt someone was being really nice to you, by all means give that bar of chocolate to her, or reward him with something nice.

The love of all things laowai

The Chinese are madly in love with things from foreign lands. I know this as a Swiss citizen, because they go absolutely nuts over our army knives, chocolates, and watches. (I myself go nuts over our sausages - but I digress!) Many a Mercedes is owned by the well-off, and the décor of the average well-to-do local looks more like an imitation of Versailles than anything else.

If you're a foreigner working in a Chinese company, expect to be the star of the office. Even if you look Chinese, but are of a different nationality (like yours truly), you'll still attract all them eyeballs, and they'll ask you all kinds of questions about where you're from (as well as what they eat over there, and stuff like that).

But once you're too much into being totally foreign, other locals will start complaining. They expect the laowai, or "old foreigner", to dance the Chinese way (and nope, being "old" in China isn't all that bad - you're wiser when you're older). If you turn a blind ear to local demands, they'll start yelling at you, with slogans like "you don't care about the interests of the Chinese population", and "when are you going to localize so and so?".

That's not arrogance, by the way. We're talking about two big things here. First, did I hear someone utter that famed "When in Rome, do what the Romans do"? Second, is this not the world's most exciting market, with 1.3 billion and counting? With China becoming more and more relevant, I suppose they have quite a bit of a "right" (if you must) to expect more "special treatment".

Here's the scary thing: if you don't localize, they'll have a local copy available anyway. They're fully OK with sealing the door; the internal market is big already. My advice: be a harmonious laowai and dance the Chinese way. It'll be hard to do at first, but will win you a lot of points.

The importance of making Chinese friends

This one is actually more social than biz-related, but it's truly essential. If you're in the PRC for the long run, and in particular if all you can do with your limited Chinese is to point directions, bargain, and understand the word laowai, the writing is on the wall: You need to have a Chinese friend that swims around nicely in the local lingo.

The importance of making Chinese friends goes to the extent that even the police in Beijing will often ask you to put your Chinese friend on the line if communications between you and the cop come to nothing due to the language barrier. So do it. Meet up with a local, be nice, and make a friend (didn't they say something about "a friend in need is a friend indeed"?).

More importantly, by making local friends, you integrate more and more into the local culture. You get to be more and more Chinese. And to the locals, there is no better sight than seeing a laowai respect and understand China and be as Chinese as possible. If you master this, you'll be showered with awards in every conceivable way - sooner or later.

Next week on Mind the Gap Saturday: Two big microblogging networks - Jiwai.de or Twitter? The local version or the original? Be sure to Mind the Gap again next Saturday.

Copyright © 2007, Blognation.com.

This article first appeared on Blognation.