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How Not to Screw Up in China  //  Part 1 - Drinking

How Not to Screw Up in China

Our TV series Your Private China celebrates travel in the Middle Kingdom and our business travel program Going Global launched with an episode on China. We think China is an incredibly exciting destination. However China’s traditions and customs may be a little confusing for first time travelers, so we asked writer and Sinophile Michael Keller to create a series of articles on proper etiquette for traveling & working in the Middle Kingdom.

So you’ve landed a big contract to provide services to a Fortune 500 subsidiary doing business in Shanghai. Or you’ve been tapped by an international recruiter to work at a venture capital outfit in Beijing. Maybe you’ve stumbled upon a sweet gig teaching English in Hubei province after graduation.

There are enormous opportunities to be had in China’s thriving domestic and export markets for the savvy foreigner. Chinese businesses and multinationals see in the international labor pool a chance to import much-needed expertise in a range of fields. Foreign companies, meanwhile, salivate over the prospect of capturing even a small part of the country’s burgeoning economy.

But with business travelers comprising a significant minority of the tens of millions flocking to China every year, and with 600,000 foreigners living in the country in 2010, according to the national bureau of statistics there are a whole mess of chances newcomers have to torpedo themselves by committing business and personal faux pas. It also means that, however you’re trying to make a living, in very few fields is China a hidden gem; stiff competition means the edge might just go to the foreigner who has taken the time to learn the rules and customs of life in this country.

Fortunately, it must be said, with so many visitors flooding into the country many Chinese have come to excuse foreign ignorance of local etiquette and protocols. That doesn’t mean that cutting short the ceremonial multiple rounds of toasting with the kerosene-flavored baijiu liquor during a business dinner banquet, where many of the business deals that make the economy hum are conducted, is a good idea. You’ll score points with the boss if you suck it up and shoot it down. The red face and cough that immediately follows will earn you some bonhomie and a few friendly slaps on the back to help get your breath back.

That’s just one of the things that every person visiting China should know to make a good impression, according to those who have navigated the Middle Kingdom’s customs for fun and profit.

A friend and fellow tippler in the bars of Beijing, who is also an old hand in China and curator of the Sino-focused blog, relays a cautionary tale on the importance of wetting your whistle with your hosts. He tells of an American sales rep for an engineering firm who was in China to land a major long-term contract. This sales rep, evidently understanding the importance of matching his colleagues shot for shot, promptly excused himself from the table to vomit up his dinner and pass out in the bathroom. Wondering what had become of him, a few of his Chinese compatriots went in and retrieved him from the bathroom floor.

“Apparently, six of them hoisted him on to their shoulders—like coffin bearers—and paraded him around the banqueting room a few times, to general approval. Later, they took him back to his hotel and dumped him on his bed,” my friend said. “When asked by his colleagues [in America] how things had gone, he was at a loss as to what to tell them; he couldn’t remember a thing about the crucial last day of discussions! But it seems his hosts had been heartily impressed by his willingness to put his life at risk for his company, and they were willing to move ahead with the deal.”

Betty Yuan, a Beijing-based Chinese journalist, said foreigners should take care when venturing into her country to do business, especially when it comes to the ritualized overindulgence in alcohol. The stranger at the table may just be everyone’s target to get really wasted.
“I was always astonished by the way people around the table are pushed to drink more and more,” Yuan said. “Only after you get totally drunk is when other people think you are a real friend. What is the logic of this? It seems what they really care about is not business itself, but how much liquor you can swallow. That is why companies, when hiring employees, require candidates to have the ability to drink liquor, as much as possible.” That would be an interesting requirement on a Western job posting.

So goes the sacrifices one must sometimes make in the service of prosperity.

This first article is a cautionary tale of why you shouldn’t think you can party like a local when your regular drink of choice is a Coors light or white wine spritzer. Not all drinking tales in China end so happily.

Stay tuned for more upcoming articles on practical business travel tips. In the meantime for more information on travel to China be sure to check out our TV series Your Private China and the debut episode of Going Global which looks at the ins and outs of doing business in the Middle Kingdom.


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