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Let’s get a few things straight about China consultants…

October 27, 2008

How on earth do you explain what you do when you are someone who primarily deals with China? China Hand? China Expert? China Consultant? I hate all of these terms. I suppose China consultant is the best of a bad bunch but really, it is still awful. Have you ever heard of a ‘Spain Consultant.’

The Middle Kingdom, China, Cathay has held an enormous fascination for westerners for hundreds of years. We’ve tried to trade since the times of George III and even gone to war for the right to trade, a subject that is still a pretty thorny issue in China today.

My livelihood and by extension, that of my family is inextricably linked to China. Over the years I have tried to escape from its clutches, to consider a change of direction but it always come back to me that China is ‘in my blood’ even though I have no Chinese blood in me.

A chance encounter with my father’s Chinese colleague at the age of 12 led to this point. I told him I wanted to be able to read Chinese like he could, only to be told that no gwailo could ever really master the language. Degrees in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, several years as a translator and negotiator in China and an accreditation in Chinese translation from the Australian government followed. It is a magical language and the classical form of ancient Chinese even more so.

But back to China Hands. To understand how ridiculous the concept of a China Consultant is, one has to really first consider China as a concept.

Nearly 1/4 of the world’s population is Chinese, 75 times the population of Australia in a place roughly the same size. China spans from Mohe on the Siberian border to Hainan and Yunnan in the tropics and the cultures of these places are far from similar. Yes, China has a strong central government but is governed in a very decentralised manner. Dealing with bureaucracy in Guangzhou is very different to dealing with bureaucracy in Harbin, for example. Banqueting culture literally means the difference between some nice food under palm trees in Guangzhou right through to the total destruction of your liver and brain due to the local liquor in Harbin.

So to claim that you consult on 1/4 of the world’s population spanning an area similar in size to and about as diverse as Western Europe seems a touch arrogant to me.

Anybody who claims to ‘Help Western companies enter the China market’ worries me greatly. Which markets? Which areas? Do you really understand PCB manufacture as well as you understand setting up a language school or selling luxury goods? I doubt it.

There is no doubt, however, that when a company wishes to be successful in China they really do need assistance from people who understand the culture and the business environment.

So what makes a good China Consultant? I humbly suggest the following criteria be applied?

1) Would you work with this person in a territory other than China?

Don’t compromise on who you deal with just because you perceive China to be different.

2) Do they have focus and direction?

It is quite acceptable to have worked across a number of different industries in China. However, someone who claims to be all things to all people is unlikely to be good at any of them.

3) Do they have a solid track record in China?

You want someone who has run their own businesses in China or at least has an impressive list of satisfied clients. An expat worker who has decided to stay on after recently getting fired from a multinational is unlikely to be of much help to you unless they really know your industry inside out.

4) Do they speak fluent Chinese? I know some disagree with me, but if someone can’t even tell what their own staff are saying to each other or speak to the 98% of Chinese who don’t speak English then how can they possibly know the real China?

5) Is their experience recent?

Emerging economies change fast, 10 years in China in the 80’s isn’t much use in 2008.

5) Do not make the mistake that all Chinese know their own country. Just being Chinese does not mean someone is going to be of help to you. There are many excellent Chinese consultants but the same rules apply; credibility, experience and knowledge count for everything.

Above all, make sure the person you are dealing with is willing to work WITH YOU to EMPOWER YOU to be successful in China.

No one knows your business like you do. You need a guide, someone who can decode the complex cultural and political landscape. Someone who can explain it to you and aid you to work with, not against the business culture in order to smoothly get on with the business you do so well in other countries.

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