8 Tips for Business Travel in China
“Ni chiguòle méiyou?” (“Have you eaten?”) seems like an unusual way of greeting someone, but only 15 years ago that was a common way of saying hello in China. Although food is still important, nowadays it’s more about “Ni chuan de shì shénme páizi?” (“What brand are you wearing?”) or more simply “Zenme yàng?” (“What’s up?”).
China is a country that has cannonballed to modernity, and with it has come changes. With improved infrastructure making the whole country increasingly accessible, business travel is easier and even more tempting to the modern Business-person.
On the other hand, business etiquette has in some ways remained the same. There’s a certain calmness and supposed “time-wasting,” which often frustrates many a Western Business person and can sometimes ruin a deal. Now, it’s impossible to be totally prepared for China, but that’s part of its charm. Embrace it, ride the wave, and have a read below for a few tips to make that business trip a little smoother.
1. China is HUGE
This may seems obvious but honestly, China spans 5 time zones (although quite confusingly only sticks to one). It’s easy to take for granted, and business travellers can often come up with hectic schedules without realising the distances involved. Beijing and Shanghai are easily connected, but be wary of how you travel as there can often be delays (with flights) and no one wants to miss that business trip.
2. Ditch planes, take trains
China’s air network can seem handy and incredibly cost effective, but there can be severe delays. Trains on the other hand are rarely late and are equally as efficient. The train network is exceptional, and with the new bullet trains they’ll often be the quickest option. Make sure you book tickets a few days in advance, especially during Chinese holidays, and always take your passport as you won’t be able to book otherwise.
The bullet trains even have First, Business and Economy class! Every Chinese city has ticket booking offices in central locations which will save you from making a trip out to the station. Unless you speak Chinese, make sure you have the exact time of departure and train number written down (all which can be found online) so that you can easily show the ticked vendor (who absolutely won’t speak English). If you have a Chinese business partner then it is much easier getting them to help.
3. The Great Chinese Firewall
Many websites and social media apps are blocked in China. This always catches people out and is exceptionally frustrating, particularly when you need to work or contact people online. You might want to embrace the freedom of a Facebook-less trip; however, nothing is more business-trip-shattering than not being able to access your email. Gmail is blocked and so too are many servers that are linked to it, so get yourself a VPN (there are many options online) and make sure it’s up and running before you land in China.
4. Chinese apps
China has its own selection of popular apps which operate faster than Western counterparts (mainly due to the above). If you’re communicating with people in China, WeChat (aka WeiXin) is the preferred method. It’s essentially a Chinese version of WhatsApp, Viber and iMessage but way more powerful. It’s often common to ‘add’ people using ‘QR’ codes accessed via the app, and you can even make mobile payments using it. If you’re looking for Chinese equivalents to Google Maps or Google Search, then use ‘Baidu.’ Baidu Maps and Baidu Search are in Chinese but you can still use English as an input language.
5. Business cards
Exchanging business cards is common practice and often a respected formality. Before you head out to China get hundreds printed off, with one side in Chinese and the other in your own language (choose your own Chinese name or get a business partner to help). No matter who you meet and where you meet, make sure you have them to hand. When you’re exchanging cards use two hands and have the Chinese facing upwards.
6. The art of conversation
Small talk is particularly important when meeting in a business environment. It might sound ridiculous, but there are popular welcome topics such as art, geography, weather, food and anything positive about China!Avoid talking about Tibet and Taiwan. Don’t go diving into business chat straight away, as this will be considered rude. Strong relationships are a pre-requisite to speaking about business, so expect a few meetings before anything happens. Like any country, it’s also polite to learn learn the local language, but if you don’t or can’t speak Chinese, learn a few words as this will go a long way.
7. Eating etiquette
If you’re invited to a business meal, do not speak about business (!!) and wait to be seated, as there is a strict protocol based on hierarchy. You’ll be served upwards of 20 dishes so don’t try to eat too much at once. The diversity of Chinese food is unbelievable. From pork dumplings and fried flying-fish, to lamb stews and beef kebabs, curried crabs and crispy crickets, there’s a serious amount to choose from.
Bear in mind that scorpions, sea slugs, snake skin and ducks blood are considered premium delicacies, so if they come your way you may have to grin and bear it. Now, before you tuck into that tofu there’s a couple of things to bear in mind. Always leave a bit of food on your plate to show that you’re full, and never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice - this indicates that you’re offering it to the spirit of a dead person, a serious no-no.
8. The dreaded “dry-glass”
A common way to cement a business partnership is with a round of ‘bai-jiu’ (literally white spirit). If your Chinese counterpart is a fan of a tipple, then this may turn into a test of your ability to handle alcohol with plenty a “GAN-BEI” (cheers! Or literally… “dry-glass”). Bai-jiu is not far off rocket fuel and the best way to despite its flavour is - ‘daggers in your throat.’ If you go for it, eat plenty; otherwise, find a good medical excuse!
- Ross Jennings