Today’s post is by another guest writer…

Don’t Be Fooled by the Familiar in China
by Mike Black

Would you base your opinion of the United States entirely on knowledge of New York City and Los Angeles? Most would agree that viewing the US through the lens of these two cities will result in a limited understanding at best.

Don’t kid yourself.

And yet, this is exactly how many in the West end up looking at China. Media coverage of China is heavily weighted in favor of Shanghai and Beijing, China’s greatest cities. The first stop, and often the only stop, for Western business travellers is likely to be one of these cities. Other popular arrival points – Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou in southern China – are equally unrepresentative of China as a whole.

The affluent Chinese shopping for luxury goods and buying pricey foreign branded cars live, for the most part, in Beijing, Shanghai and several other major cities. The glittering skyscrapers, opulent malls, and elegant residential compounds we see pictured are in these top tier cities.

Marketing surveys and opinion polls that claim to speak for the whole country often never get beyond Shanghai and Beijing. A survey generalizing about the learning habits of Chinese secondary school students nationwide was based on interviews with a several hundred students in central Beijing.

Look Beyond the Familiar.

Western business travellers landing in Beijing or Shanghai see much that is familiar – from shiny airports and crowded expressways to modern offices and conferencing facilities. Their hotel is virtually identical to ones in Chicago or Frankfurt. It is probably located in an up market neighborhood where well-dressed Chinese crowd into shops and restaurants that do not look much different than what Westerners see at home.

Once they get down to business, are likely to meet Chinese who have considerable experience working for or with international companies. Beijing and Shanghai are magnets for internationally savvy Chinese. These Chinese speak the lingo of international business and many of them do so in flawless English. More than a few have degrees from universities in the US or Europe.

Living and working in familiar surroundings, while talking to Chinese practised at international business speak, it is easy for Westerns to forget they are on the other side of the world.

Remember Who and Where You Are.

You are in China – forgetting that is dangerous. Yes, some things about China look similar to home on the surface. But do not kid yourself. China is changing rapidly, but it is not becoming like a Western country nor are Chinese becoming “Westernized”. Doing business in China remains very different than doing business at home. Importing your business model and company culture lock, stock, and barrel to China is almost certain to fail. You will need to adapt to make it work in China.

It Comes Down to Three Things

Be realistic.

If you want to do business in Shanghai, then plan for Shanghai. But if you want to operate in other parts China, make sure your plan reflects that. A business plan that makes perfect sense for Shanghai or Beijing is unlikely to work elsewhere in China.

Be humble.

Admit to yourself there is much you do not know about China. The scene in a Beijing Starbucks may look like what you would see at home, but the Chinese at the tables may not be talking about things that would make sense to you. And keep in mind that much of what you do learn is filtered through English speaking Chinese whom you can understand.

Most of all, be careful.

The Chinese you meet may speak great English and be good business communicators, but that does not mean they are really on the same wavelength you are. Some Chinese are trustworthy, others are not. English language skills have nothing to do with who is and who is not. English skills should not be the criterion you use to select business associates or Chinese partners. Until you are sure you can trust the Chinese you meet, do not share confidential information in any language.

Whether you are in Shanghai or a small rural town, this approach will help you understand and plan for business in China.

Michael Black (@HongTuChina) is CEO of Hong Tu – China Business Services. Michael has a background in psychology and lived in Taiwan for 8 years. Steve Barru (@sbarruchinahand) is a business adviser at Hong Tu. Steve lived in China for 25 years and has been a consultant for businesses in China for 20 years.