Your business view on economical, social and cultural trends in China

eng nld


To what degree do westerners really understand China?

When I came in 2004 to China at the age of 24, I was young, willing to learn new things, and absorb the surroundings. Now 13 years later, I see that my understanding of China is somewhat different than other westerners, because of my different experiences.

This week I was struck by the remark by a friend of mine who said that, although he has been living in China for 3 years, he still didn't have a clue about the country. He is certainly not alone. I think the problem is that he never really tried to adapt. 13 years ago I was ready to plunge myself into the Chinese culture and learn from the people in order to adapt to China. I think I adapted well: I married a Chinese, speak the language fluently, am professionally successful and have integrated well in society. Sometimes I even get the compliment that I am more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. So far one might say I have plenty of similarities with other foreigners who also have lived in China for a decade or even more. However there are still big differences. When I speak to other westerner executives, it strikes me there is often a big difference in their perception of China and mine. And it affects their business decisions. It seems to me that their understanding of China to a certain extend is different, and the main reason is that they were never able to emerge themselves completely into the Chinese way of life, the habits and the real way of doing things in China. And all this has cost foreign companies already billions of Dollars.

The way I see it there are three main differences in the way I experience China and some other westerners. The first problem is a rather common issue for most westerners: the language. If you don't speak Chinese you will often be in a disadvantage during any negotiation. During translation some details get lost, or even the real meaning of something. How often have I attended business meetings and negotiations and discovered that what I heard in Chinese, was somewhat (or totally) different than what the interpreter translated. It wasn't always that the translator didn't do a good job, it was just that the real nuances and cultural details got lost. Some might say, lost in translation. The result often was the same: no deal, or a big misunderstanding and wrong decisions. And sometimes mutual distrust as a direct consequence. Unfortunately however as I pointed out in another linkedin post, research showed that for expats in China: 

~30% in China for 5-10 years

~20% in China for 10+ years

~73% barely speaks Chinese

~8% speak basic Chinese

So 20% is in China for 10+ years and still don't speak Chinese. That’s not very good…

Secondly there is a big difference between the Tier I cities like Beijing and Shanghai and the 'real China' in the Tier II and Tier III cities. I have lived in a 'small' Tier III city for 5 years where I was responsible for setting up a Joint Venture, with multi-million Euro construction of a manufacturing plant and management of it. Most westerners however live only in Tier I and big Tier II cities. Living in a Tier III city, among the Chinese 'nouveaux rich' was mentally and physically the most strenuous time of my life. Mentally because daily life with all its uncertainties, the lack of clear rules and regulations, and pressure of doing business in 'rural' China is quite challenging; physically because the daily required drinking to get to know the right people brings a heavy toll on the body. But it was also the most interesting time of my life because I gained there an experience that no westerner ever would experience by living in a Tier I city. And it changed my way on China and its people drastically.

I also made there the best friends I have ever had in China. That's because I was lucky to enter 'the inner circle' of their friendship, and it made my realize what real friendship really means to the Chinese people: unlimited and unconditional. The result of all these experiences is that I finally understood what daily life for 90% of the Chinese people really looks like. For most people in China, life is not what most westerners see in Beijing or Shanghai; life for them is what I have seen and experienced myself for 5 years in 'rural' China. Result is also that If I explain this life and my experience to other westerners in Shanghai, they look at me as if I just landed from Mars. Any Chinese on the other hand can easily relate to my experience. Consequently, just looking at Beijing and Shanghai doesn't show you how China operates. In some ways rather the opposite even.

Thirdly the Chinese people have experienced drastic changes over the last 30 years, and it's hard to imagine what that really does to a person. Once I was in my wife's hometown where we walked past an old building, now transformed to a kind of museum with park. I asked my mother in law what that building was used for in the past, to which she answered as if it was the most normal thing in the world: "It used to be a prison. When we were young we needed to attend here once a public execution". I was generally surprised and intrigued that my mother law and the other people with us, didn't show the smallest sign of surprise or emotion.

But then suddenly I realized that for all people from their generation, compulsory attending a public execution, was in those days a relatively normal experience. So that's why none of them showed any emotion: for them it was part of their childhood, and a common experience. To say it another way: it was normal for everybody from their generation. It also made me realize suddenly that Chinese people have experienced tremendous changes in their life, and that this the reason is why they are so pragmatic and highly flexible. They just needed to adjust to all these changes. Therefore for the average westerner, used to clear regulations, who never experienced real drastic changes as Chinese have, China must look like a place where everything is flexible, and highly uncertain.

The conclusion of all is that for most westerner China might always be a bit of a mysterious place, with people who seem to have a different logic than themselves. This image is not completely wrong of course, but there is always a very good reason why Chinese people act the way they act, and conduct business the way they do. It's just a matter to spend some more time in the 'real' China, and see what is really going on.