Talking to China
The irony about China, a senior Chinese leader told me recently, is that “when for more than a century foreigners [...]
March 4 2007 by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
The irony about
When American and Chinese political leaders interact, divergent perceptions are common. Americans focus on their huge trade imbalances with
Divergent perceptions are dangerous. In 1999, during NATO’s military campaign against ethnic cleansing in
To no small degree, the peace and prosperity of the 21st century depends on the bilateral relations between
Effective political communications require honesty and clarity. The place to start is for each side to explain how it truly feels about the other side. Being frank is often uncomfortable, but if both sides are sincerely interested in reaching an agreement, it is often the optimum approach.
Most Chinese believe that
Most Americans believe that
The Chinese government does not deny that its policies benefit its own people; any legitimate government, they say, should. With 1.4 billion people, the Chinese obsession with stability has been seared into the collective consciousness by a catastrophic political legacy of roiling mass movements that decimated a generation and, nearly, the country. They see
Styles of Communication
Chinese and Americans, by tradition and culture, express subtle differences in styles of communication. A senior Chinese official contrasted four general ways of thinking that cause political misperceptions and that affect all instances of Chinese-American communications, commercial as well as political.
- Chinese are more indirect and cyclical, whereas Americans are more direct and linear. Thus, Americans may see Chinese as evasive and deceitful, whereas Chinese may see Americans as rude and arrogant.
- Chinese use more abstract forms and general terms, focusing on principles and theories, whereas Americans use more concrete forms and specific terms, focusing on practice and precedents. Thus, Americans may see Chinese as programmed and robotic, whereas Chinese may see Americans as pompous. (For example, the American media tends to mock
‘s political slogans- when it considers them at all-as empty jargon, rather than consider the insight into political priorities they offer.) China
- Chinese stress the collective more than they do the individual, believing that the needs of human society exceed in importance the ideals of human rights; Americans prefer the reverse.
- When dealing with weighty matters, Chinese are not given to humor nor do they engage in self-deprecating banter or smile in serious situations. As such, Chinese leaders may appear more rigid, inflexible, impersonal, doctrinaire and unapproachable than they really are. The dour countenances of many Chinese officials may well be the residual conditioned response to a past system of fear-driven governance where a single mistake could cost an official his job, if not his freedom. Under President Hu Jintao, there is more tolerance: Mistakes don’t end careers; risks can be taken.
Let’s consider each of these contrasting styles of communication, and construct general principles that American businesspeople can apply when dealing with executives of Chinese companies, particularly those of state-owned enterprises. (At private Chinese companies, especially high-tech firms, there is more similarity with Western ways and these principles are less applicable.)
- Be patient in negotiations. Do not assume the Chinese side is being deliberately opaque. If you must press for answers or resolutions, do so with sensitivity and respect.
- Learn to appreciate the purpose of general principles and why the recitation of these principles may be repeated more than you think necessary; do not move too aggressively to nail down specifics.
- Recognize that as
adopts elements of democracy, collective decision-making in many large Chinese enterprises has become more common. Senior management is now less able to dictate decisions than their American counterparts. Chinese business leaders must engage their own middle management in sometimes laborious internal discussions and negotiations before finalizing an important transaction. This means that foreign business people must work with many managers in the hierarchy, even those down the line in the chain of command. China
- Respect the formality of meetings; maintain professional decorum.
Business success in
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, senior adviser at Citigroup and senior partner of IMG China, has worked with the Chinese government for 18 years on economic policy and business issues. He is co-editor-in-chief of