The Chinese Essence of Interacting with Foreigners

The requirement and ability to interact with China can be described as THE imperative of the early 21st Century, whether in the political or commercial arena.

Inescapable in this analysis is the mental framework the Chinese will approach such interactions, and is inextricably linked to both its ancient and more recent history – an understanding essential for today’s modern statesperson or business executive if the goal is successful Sino-Foreign co-operation.

For its essence, we cannot under-estimate the influence and universality of Confucius’ teachings two millennia ago, which were shaped by the master’s (and his subsequent disciples and proponents) experience of turbulence and instability in a divided society of the time before dynastic unification.

In this backdrop, it is unsurprising Confucianism places overriding priority on unity, stability and harmony; and weaves these aspired themes into two interrelated areas: Social Teachings, which deal with proper behavior of the individual in society and to his fellow men, and Political Teachings, which deal with the art of governance and the proper relationship of the Ruler/leader to the ruled/subordinate. The role of RITUAL, or the adherence to it in both social (individual, family, societal) and political (government, bureaucracy) contexts, is the centerpiece to the ultimate goal of harmonious relationships, and is the foundation to a stable and unified state. Today’s manifestation is how, despite Mao Zedong’s attempts to suppress it in the 20th Century, the Chinese psyche and mores are still informed by Confucian values and discipline – a deferential respect for authority is but one example.

If Confucian thought is considered the essence of Chinese culture and behavior, more recent history has infused this with a sense of entitlement borne of unfair treatment in the past two hundred years by foreign powers, which comprise the major western nations and Japan. In fact, all countries in the G7 (excepting Canada) plus Russia had at least one unequal treaty imposed by military threat or force over China since the 1840s, in exchange for a disproportionate economic or trading benefit, and the humiliated Chinese feel strongly about restoring its rightful place in the world order.

So the ominous setting for Sino-Foreign dealings is a start-point of distrust and suspicion, and for the uninitiated foreigner, having to interpret values and behavior unique only to eastern Confucian societies. However, if the foreign party has leverage or indeed something of value, the pragmatic Chinese know their own advancement needs to materialize in a harmonious and stable environment, and they need to subscribe to accepted rules, or rituals, to govern the relationship. Understanding this setting, and leveraging your own strengths within it, is critical to successful political or commercial interactions in China.

Tim Lai is the founder and managing director of DaLu Venture Solutions and works with clients to optimize value in their Chinese Foreign partnerships across the lifecycle phases of Joint Venture (JV) development and management.