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On understanding the local environment

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. October, 2010

China is an ancient, complex, and culturally strong society with its own ways of doing things. Ways which are sometimes difficult for a foreigner to understand. A lot of unnecessary frustration can be avoided if things are put in their historical and cultural context. 


On understanding the local environment

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Chinese people believe in themselves and in the value and strength of their traditions. Although they will adopt useful ideas, practices, and so on from the west, history says that they will absorb them into their ancient culture rather than be overwhelmed by them. They will do it their way.

For example:

Although modern western organisational structures are being adopted by joint-venture partnerships in China, this does not necessarily mean that the operating culture of the original (Chinese) business will change accordingly. If the notionally more efficient western structure is simply grafted on to traditional ways of thinking and behaviour, it may not produce the desired efficiencies. This can be a problem for the western half of a joint-venture.

A western manager or supervisor will separate private relationships and responsibilities from professional matters and will focus on system efficiencies and outcomes. He is task oriented. His Chinese counterpart however, may not enjoy this luxury. He is locked into a complex web of relationships which he brings to work with him every day. He may be expected to use his power and patronage for the benefit of others inside and outside the company who are part of his web. His responsibilities may be lateral (the web) as well as vertical (the company). There is no separation between the two. He is relationship as well as task oriented. A modern, western, flatter, management structure which looks good on paper may include hidden feudal hierarchies.

Some more gratuitous advice:

Paranoia. A little paranoia can help. Never accept everything at face-value. Remember the web, and remind yourself that the person you are dealing with may be a front man for a sophisticated network of relationships and responsibilities. He has his own ‘guanxi’ and his own difficulties with these matters. Appreciate that his balancing act may be more difficult to perform than that of any circus performer. He has less room to move and further to fall.

Friendships. The same goes for that new friend you just made. There are many good and genuine friends to be made in China. Sadly however, there are also ‘friends’ here who wish to gain some advantage from their association with you. They will disappear after they have got what they want from you, and laugh about your gullibility behind your back. Although this type of behaviour exists in the west, it appears to be more common here in China.

Promises. And be careful of any promises that may be made in an effort to entice you. They are bait. My experience is that they will be eroded or whittled down over time. My advice? Do not wait for this to happen. Insist on fulfillment of the promise as soon as practicable.

These opinions are based on information gained from Chinese colleagues, western associates, genuine friends, and personal experience.

China: “A little paranoia never hoitya” (apologies to Groucho Marx).




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