Friday, February 20, 2009

Constant Gathering of Knowledge.

I just realized that the last post on this site was Christmas Eve. Sad, really, that on the day everyone is with family, I'm writing about that James Kynge book. It truly was a good book, but sheesh, I think I need a life.

While books like that and the one I'm reading now Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics are interesting and informative about the current status of China's fascinating economy, I think the books every business student planning on engaging in international trade with China should read are not necessarily studies of the market. Those books are great for learning what is new in China and how things are progressing, but the real teaching tools on the country are books about it's most influential figures. I'm reading "Zhou Enlai, the Last Perfect Revolutionary" right now. It's an easy read after so many books on market changes and real estate development. It talks about the much more astounding feat of living next to and under the thumb of Chairman Mao for decades without getting killed.

The biggest difference between China and the US is how we perceive shame. I firmly believe this. In China, power and status are almost always more important than money. Especially in the government. While that may be the same here, I think it is on another level there. A lecturer that I firmly disagreed with on a number of points came to Seattle University to talk about his twenty years in China and what it was like. I disagreed with him that my time spent studying China will not help me get hired by a company looking to move into the country. But he said one thing that really stuck with me. He mentioned gifts.

I've often thought that if someday I start my own consulting firm or exporting company, or even help get a manufacturer or some other branch of a US firm going in China, I will eventually run into the bureaucrats who will want a slice of the American Pie in the form of a red envelope filled with cash passed under the table. I will never go this route because it just turns into more pain and suffering. But I had never figured out how to get around it until that lecture at Seattle U. The answer was so simple: Bring them information.

In China, gift giving is a big deal. You can't have a house with no fruit in it. What if someone comes to visit and you don't have a bowl of fruit to offer them? That would be a much bigger deal there than not having a beer in the fridge would be here. So when you get involved with the government in an attempt to start a business in, say, Chongqing, what the hell are you supposed to bring?

The answer really surprised me, but after a little further thought, it made sense. The one way to prevent anyone from asking you to give them a bribe to grease the wheels of your own personal progress over in China is to find out what will help that person who has what you need get what they need from someone else. The company man who lectured talked about business reports from the US government, translated into Chinese, that could not be easily found elsewhere. They gave this to people who they thought could help them, and those people became instant allies.

In China, especially in the government, people aspire to rise up in rank. Getting one step higher up the ladder means a pay raise and more respect. But there are usually less spots available every step of the way than there are people who want them. If a guy whose help I need to get a building permit from the government goes to his boss in the department of big buildings with the latest information on global interest rates at US banks, all written in Chinese and translated from the Economist or the Wall Street Journal, I'll get my building permit. My new friend will get a nod and a smile from his superior, and he'll be looking for opportunities to help me in the future.

Business is really the same everywhere. You have to find out what the person you need something from needs, and make sure it's a positive, enticing carrot rather than a stick or payment for a service that should have been rendered for free. If a guy looking for a little graft finds out that I can help him look good in front of his boss, he's going to try to make things work for me.

The rest of it all falls into line. You have to know the country you live in. You have to understand the new culture and how it differs from your own. You have to know the differences so the message you're sending gets properly received and understood. Otherwise, the recipient of your instruction will lose respect for you. If this happens, you've lost face. Lose face to the wrong person, and you'll never get it back.