Are You an Influential Foreigner?

December 5, 2008

I am quite a fan of Tim Johnson’s Blog, China Rises he often comes up with some interesting stories and maintains a reasonably fair balance of views on China. Neither a panda hugger nor a China basher.

He picked up on this article from China’s news agency Xinhua talking about China’s most influential 15 foreigners.

I always find these things quite hard to take as they simply reinforce the rather outdated notion that there is ‘China’ and ‘The Rest of the World’ a concept that can be very annoying if you are just trying to get things done in China without becoming obsessed with cultural differences or going troppo*

However, as ever lessons can be learned from the fact that Xinhua has put out such an article. China really really cares about this sort of thing- whether you like it or not there is a perception that China is separate to the rest of the world and that if you are going to be in China you had better have a good reason for being there and a part to play in the country.

I find it ironic that a nation that has given the rest of the world millions of immigrants who are famed for turning up in a country, keeping themselves to themselves and working extremely hard to better their own lives actually tends to look down on non-Chinese doing the same thing in their own country**. But this does seem to be the case.

If you are doing business in China don’t expect to get a lot of thanks or credit for being a responsible corporate citizen, employing people on a fair basis and quietly paying your taxes. To be a real friend of China you are going to have to portray an image of benefiting the face and prestige of the country and showing a real interest in China and not just the money to be made.

A few rules of thumb for business people undertaking ventures in China:

1) Present the right PR image. What you are doing should demonstrably benefit China and you should emphasise that China adds to your service greatly as well. Setting up a fibre glass assembly line we explained to local officials that we wanted to open a factory in China as the greater supply of labour would allow us to use a better technique for our products improving quality over the process used abroad. True or not, this is a much better way of putting it than “we want to open up here because labour is cheaper.”

2) Show you care about China. Emphasising that you really enjoy being in China and that you are honoured to be doing business there is a very positive image. I have always portrayed the image that a primary focus for me is being in China and learning about China, doing business there too is a great bonus. Of course, it does help that this is basically the truth in my case.

3) Don’t be condescending. So you have a new technology that can help millions of Chinese or a commodity that China needs but it is probably best not to portray it as such. Present the facts and allow them to make up their own minds. The Chinese have survived for a long time without your new computer software and if you rub it in their faces that you know they need it they will simply clam up. Confidence in your product is fine, arrogance is not, even if you know you have something totally new.

4) Leave your cultural preconceptions at home. There are probably at least 2 ways to view any issue so why bother upsetting people unless you are truly informed. Politics is best left at home, don’t even try to agree with the Chinese line on an issue, just leave well alone.

Some of the above may look very simple and obvious but you would be amazed how many people do not follow these simple rules.

I’ve seen people turn up in China, walk around with their noses in the air, acting as if the Chinese should be happy they are there.

Trust me, this is a very bad strategy. Enjoy, be polite, make friends and act decently. You probably won’t win an award from the government for being a “Friend of China” but you will have a much more pleasant time and please your hosts.

* going troppo: The saddest form of culture shock by where one becomes ‘like native’ eschewing all forms of one’s own culture but fooling no one, least of all the Chinese. Best avoided.

** I mean this as a term of respect to hardworking Chinese immigrants everywhere.


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