Out in my neck of the woods, it is not uncommon to hear a businessperson from a Western country, following a disappointing episode with a Chinese supplier, say something like: “They’re all a bunch of liars!” Of course, they’re not all bad. Part of the problem is very different definitions of what constitutes ethical and honest behavior between the Chinese and the Western world (Note: I’d include the Japanese in the group of people who don’t understand Chinese “lying”).
In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.
Chinese values are rooted in concepts of duty to oneself, one’s family, one’s company, one’s friends and associates, but not to anyone else. There is no “Good Samaritan” ethic going on; kids are not really taught from a young age that they have a duty to help strangers. The teaching is more along the lines of “don’t make trouble,” “don’t do anything shameful,” or “be a good student.”
Also worth noting is the fact that many more things are covered up by the Chinese than they would be in the West. People don’t tell each other about things that would make someone lose face or cause social embarrassment, and once the “deception” is discovered, all is generally forgiven after a brief explanation along the lines of “it wasn’t convenient for me to tell you the truth.” Things like job loss, serious illness, legal trouble, or problems with children are seldom talked about, and often kept hidden, even among close friends and relatives.
In a business context, you might not hear about a shipment that was supposed to go out last week but will now likely never go out until it is too late. This occurs with great frequency in greater China, and there is very little concern or shame on the Chinese end, because it simply isn’t viewed as being wrong.
For the unprepared Western businessperson, these ethics can be quite unnerving. I’ve personally seen many a business deal, and many a friendship, fall apart because of these radically different values.
The Bottom Line: Don’t expect your Chinese suppliers to have the same set of ethics that you have. There are differences across the board in what constitutes ethical behavior when you’re talking about East and West. Tread carefully, and set up plenty of checks and balances until you really know what you are doing.