What Americans Need to Know Before Working in China

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

Throughout this summer’s Olympic games, the eyes of the world were on China. Given the resulting media coverage of the past few months, Westerners may collectively know more about China—from the Great Wall just north of Beijing to great restaurants in central Beijing—than ever before. But that's not saying much. There's still considerable ignorance about this enormous nation with its history and strong culture, partly because it has gone through some long periods of isolationism.

Today is a good time to become more educated about China, given its increased openness to foreign investors and multinational joint ventures. There are, after all, significant costs associated with misinformed expectations and opinions. U.S. businesses report, for example, that they damage their ability to hire and retain employees when they fail to understand the values and attitudes of Chinese workers (King-Metters & Metters, 2008).

For those planning to work or travel in China, learning to read the culture correctly is a worthwhile investment (Von Weltzien Hoivik, 2007). This learning is often impeded by false assumptions and stereotypes. The following is a list of key points companies may want to consider before venturing into the Middle Kingdom.

1. Revise dated impressions about Chinese workers and what motivates them. New research throws a monkey wrench into beliefs such as "Chinese workers are motivated only by money" or "Chinese have no loyalty to their employer." Not so, says one large-scale study. With fewer opportunities to be part of a group, many Chinese workers look to their employers to fill the void once filled by family, government, religion and neighbors. Increasingly, they want to be part of a team they can take pride in (King-Metters & Metters, 2008).

2. Understand how devastating it is for a Chinese worker to lose face. It is not an overstatement to say that the fear of losing face permeates Chinese society (Cardon, 2006). When Chinese lose face to Westerners, the result is often business disruption and loss of goodwill. So, how do Americans unknowingly create these negative emotions? Oftentimes, by losing their temper and blaming a Chinese worker in front of others.
"Westerners show up in China, their surroundings are new, they're having some anxiety, and then there's a problem. They lose their temper and blame people in front of others. Those people who are criticized will never be friends with the Westerners" (Cardon, 2006, p. 441).

3. Be patient in developing trust in business relationships. First-time negotiations with a Chinese partner often end in failure because of the length of time it takes to "come to the point" (Von Weltzien Hoivik, 2007). The Chinese need to determine whether or not the partner is reliable and trustworthy before any negotiations can take place. The good news is that once a strong relationship is in place, then Chinese professionals are more likely to feel morally obligated to do business together.

4. Know which traditions have the strongest impact. While most Americans associate the Chinese with Buddhist traditions, it is Confucian principles that have the strongest impact on culture and work values (Jaw et al., 2007). Confucian thinking elevates thriftiness, perseverance, self-control and respect for authority as desirable personal goals. These values are played out in the workplace by employees who avoid wastefulness, refrain from telling a boss that a job cannot be done, fail to ask for immediate compensation, and choose to work on a cooperative—although potentially less-productive—team. While not every part of the country is equally steeped in Confucian traditions, it pays to realize that these behaviors are rooted in long-held values and would be difficult to change.

5. Keep in mind the complex ways in which you might be viewed. "The greatest threat facing the success of American corporations in China is the manner in which Chinese citizens view foreign businesspeople" (Lin & Lin, 2008). America is a nation of immigrants. We believe we are showing the best of our country when a young man from the Sudan, a U.S. citizen of only about a year and a half, carries the torch for the Olympic athletes at the opening ceremonies. Yet as much as foreigners have become a fixture in the Chinese business landscape, they are still considered "outsiders" to large segments of the Chinese public (Shelton, 2008). Sometimes, there is downright hostility directed toward foreigners, whom the Chinese believe strong-armed their way into China over the past 200 years, exploited resources and imposed the trading of opium. It is therefore wise to have an appreciation of recent Chinese history, if not the whole 5,000 years, before entering into negotiations and agreements with the Chinese.

6. Don't be surprised at the difficulty of finding highly skilled workers in certain industries. The McKinsey Quarterly reports that the growing need for talent in China - especially managers—is a looming challenge facing both multinationals and locally owned businesses (Lane & Pollner, 2008). In fact, 37% of U.S.-owned enterprises there report that recruiting desirable talent was their biggest operational problem. Companies that succeed in managing talent concerns in China have "both a sophisticated external-recruiting machine and an internal-development and training program adapted to the local Chinese environment" (Lane & Pollner, 2008). One of the most difficult areas to hire for currently is HR. Lin and Lin (2008) write that because only a small number of people have more than a decade of HR experience in China, any knowledge is a hot commodity at the moment.

7. Remember the respect that many Chinese have for symbols and omens. In the U.S. and some other Western nations, it's often viewed as unprofessional to make workplace decisions based on the position of the stars, the month of someone's birth or other such omens. In China, however, these symbols are thoroughly embedded into both personal and professional life. It was no mistake that the Olympics began on the eighth day of the eighth month in 2008 at 8:00 p.m. Though U.S. business people may never put as much stake in such ideas as do many Chinese, they should maintain an awareness of the historical importance and daily significance of these observances to avoid unnecessary obstacles.

While the seven tips presented here won't guarantee anybody a successful joint venture or business trip in China, they can help most Westerners become familiar with some of China's most influential cultural norms.

Documents used in the preparation of this article include the following:
Cardon, P. W. (2006). Reacting to face loss in Chinese business culture: An interview report. Business Communication Quarterly, 69, 439-443.

Jaw, B. S., Ling, Y. P., Wang, C., & Chang, W. C. (2007). The impact of culture on Chinese employees' work values. Personnel Review, 36, 128-144.

King-Metters, K., & Metters, R. (2008, July 7). Misunderstanding the Chinese worker. Wall Street Journal, p. R11.

Lane, K., & Pollner, F. (2008, July). How to address China's growing talent shortage. Retrieved from mckinseyquarterly.com.

Lin, C. C., & Lin, J. (2008, January). Capitalism in contemporary China: Globalization strategies, opportunities, threats and cultural issues. Journal of Global Business Issues, 2, 31-40.

Shelton, G. (2008, August 8). Welcome to the China enigma. St. Petersburg Times, p. A1.

Von Weltzien Hoivik, H. (2007, September). East meets West: Tacit messages about business ethics in stories told by Chinese managers. Journal of Business Ethics, 74, 457-469.