Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Want Lasting Relationships in China? Start with Mutual Trust (Republish)

First of all, if you have not read Jack Perkowski’s Managing The Dragon, you are missing a tremendous resource like a lawyer missing a copy of the Black’s Law Dictionary.  Yea, it is that good.  I bought that book and could not put it down for an entire day…

Besides offering insights on doing business in China from the ground up in that book, Jack consistently updates his blog with amazing nuggets of practical “how-to-dos.”  In a recent post, Managing the Dragon discussed “Building Relationships in China,” which topic is a perennial item for people interested in or mystified by China.  In the post, when asked by a Korean reader of his excellent book on how to build lasting relationships in China, Jack states from personal experience, trial and error:

Before discussing specifics, keep in mind that establishing a level of trust with your Chinese counterparts should be your overriding long-term goal. When I first came to China, everyone emphasized the importance of “mutual trust.” In fact, it was said so many times that I began to think of it as a platitude, just like motherhood and apple pie. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “who could possibly be against ‘mutual trust’?” The longer I’m in China, though, the more I appreciate the wisdom of that advice. Once a level of mutual trust is achieved, life becomes a great deal easier. Mutual trust is not something that can be achieved overnight. It takes years, but it’s important to get started right away. How do you do it? It’s simple, do what you say you are going to do, and treat your partner withrespect, openness and candor. If you do this consistently over a long period of time, mutual trust will follow.

(Emphasis added)

I could not agree more about the absolute importance of “mutual trust”. 

First, why is there a a need for trust?  Despite China’s opening up and decades of business dealing between the Chinese and “westerners” in general, there is still a lack of trust in at the start of a business relationship.  Historically, business people in China do not enjoy a reputation as being trustworthy, honest, and forthright, and people generally approach them with caution.  We have the recent product quality scandals as adequate proof of an actual lack of trustworthiness on the part of many business people.  This need for trust is, in a sense, heightened with respect to foreigners because of the vast differences: culture, language, world view, educational background, to name a few.  On  a personal level, doubts and questions are legitimate when people of vastly different backgrounds try to forge relationships.  Where business people intend to engage in investments and commercial transactions with Chinese parties, doubts and questions are not only inevitable but also warranted.  

Second, how do you build mutual trust?  Jack’s prescription calls for “respect, openness and candor.”  Once again, he is 100% right on the money.  To echo Jack’s point, I tell a story.  In the not so distant past, the relationship between the U.S. and China came to a historical low when the U.S. led NATO forces “mistakenly” bombed the Chinese Embassy building in the former Belgrade, Yugoslavia, sending Chinese college students into a frenzy of hatred and confusion towards Americans.  Students protested in front of foreign (European and American) consulates; they smashed windows of KFC and McDonald’s restaurants; and they painted huge American national flags on roads for Chinese students and cars to trample…They were angry, their emotions were raw, and the government allowed them to vent to show the outrage at the manifestly wrong American policy and actions in Yugoslavia.  Although angry and hurt, college students still had to go to their English classes, taught by American professors. 

One of my friends was teaching at a large university in China at that time, and her experience offers some unique insights into how mutual trust is built in China, even against a difficult political backdrop.  One day after the bombing incident, she knew that she had to do something about it in class, but she did not know what to say.  The most important thing she had in mind was to be open to the students, to let them express their thoughts and emotions.  When she stepped into her classroom, the students were obviously emotional, and she noticed that a few officials from the college’s administration were sitting in the back (maybe for her safety; maybe for other reasons).  To begin, she said something to the effect: I don’t know what exactly happened in Belgrade, I don’t understand why it happened, I don’t think it should have happened, and I am so sorry for the loss (of lives and face) that you have suffered.  I am willing to listen to whatever you want to say.  After that, she began to invite her students to talk about what they thought and how they felt.  Very soon, the dynamics of the classroom transformed.  Students were expressing themselves, instead of brewing inside with hatred.  Even the officials in the back of the classroom relaxed.  Needless to say, from thereon, her status in the school changed.  Students became more open, and they came to her to discuss other matters.  And significantly, her employment contract was extended for another year.

What does this experience of a foreign teacher suggest?  Be open to the Chinese party that you are dealing with.  Don’t be afraid of talking about tough issues.  But, when you are talking about them, respect what they want to express.  Perhaps you don’t agree with them and perhaps you don’t understand their emotions, positions or arguments, but you need to show basic respect for their right to express themselves.  Then, be candid about your thoughts as well.  Let them know what you are thinking, and show some vulnerability, show them that you are a human being, with doubts, frustrations, and concerns.  But when you are expressing yourself, use sound judgment about what you say.  Gauge your audience so that your statements do not put them off.  Remember, mutual trust comes not in one day, but through a long, incremental process.  While you need to be candid, don’t try to rush things.

In sum, building relationships in China takes time and effort.  But one needs to work on creating mutual trust with openness, respect, candor, and wisdom.  Before all that, check out Jack’s post.

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