Tag Archives: China business

More on Chinese Food Safety

I’ve already written about Chinese food safety, explaining that Chinese manufacturing as a whole is going through growing pains that have a devastating effect on its victims.

Corporate China will eventually come around and do things right, but not before killing more people and losing much of its market for food products around the world.

This article gets it right. China’s business ethics environment needs to grow up, and fast. What many of those who are so keen to do business in China don’t realize is that, in many ways and in many parts of its vast territory, China is still the wild West.

There are many, many advantages to doing business with the Chinese, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, please get competent advice from someone you trust who does know what he/she is doing in greater China.

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Doing Business with the Chinese: Communication Breakdown

Many people ask me what it’s like to do business in greater China. One of my favorite songs from the classic rock era, “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin, comes immediately to mind.

I speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin Chinese. I conduct the daily business of life, as I have done for the past twenty years, largely surrounded by Chinese people.

And still, I often have to probe, prod, and read between thousands of lines in order to figure out what the hell is going on. You see, in greater China, speaking directly is NOT a virtue as it is back home.

Consider a recent discussion I had with a contract manufacturer (OEM factory) in Taiwan. I was there on behalf of a client, a food manufacturer. When I called the factory, on the recommendation of a distributor, they assured me up and down that they take all sorts of OEM work from companies both domestic and overseas.

Here’s a condensed version of the conversation I had with the boss (he had an assistant at his side the whole time), translated from Mandarin into English:

Boss: (Examining my client’s product). “We can make this.”

Me: “Good. So you already have the necessary equipment in your factory?”

Boss: “We’ll need to study this a while before we can start producing it.”

Me: “Of course. So, you have the equipment and can do it then?”

Boss: (Munching on one of the samples I brought) “This doesn’t taste very good. Too hard. Try one of ours.” (Hands me a few samples of his product.)

Me: (Politely trying a few of his samples). “Yes, it tastes very good. Of course, my client will want you to recreate his product from a formula. He’ll want you to develop a product that is very similar in look, texture, and taste to the product his produces at his home factory.”

Boss: “Your product doesn’t taste very good. Consumers in Taiwan and China won’t like it.”

Me: “Thank you for your kind advice. So, are you interested in producing this product? Will you work up a quotation for me on X kg?”

Boss:“It would take a long time to get this right before we could start producing it.”

Me: “I know. I have experience with making other food products. We’ll go for as close a match as we can get. If it takes a few weeks or even a few months, that’s okay. So, are you interested in producing this product?”

Boss: “Can you just put our products into your packaging? That would be easier.”

Me: “I’m afraid not. The client wants to sell his product, not someone else’s product. Mr. X, forgive me, I’m an American and we tend to speak directly. Will you tell me if you are interested in working with my client?”

Boss: “I don’t know. Making your product wouldn’t be very convenient.”

Me: “Thank you for your time.”

This really happened. It has happened many times in my years in greater China. Do you see the vast differences in the way a Westerner might communicate and the way a Chinese person communicates? In China, a boss won’t say “no,” even if his life depends on it. He trains his people to tell all prospects that his factory can make anything and everything, on the off chance that either he can make it, or his friend/brother/old high school classmate can make it and he gets his cut of the deal. He won’t answer questions directly unless pressed, and even then, he won’t like it. He also very often won’t understand that you want him to do some work for you in the way you want it done, not the way he wants it done. He’ll tell you “yes” at the beginning of the conversation and then, two hours later, you’ll learn that it’s actually a “no.” And here’s the kicker–behaving and communicating this way is not only acceptable, but proper, a virtue even. Chalk it up to cultural differences, my friends.

I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out the truth in a relatively short period of time, but I haven’t ever figured out a way to get a factory owner to speak plainly and directly. It just isn’t done here. So I continue to probe and read between the lines, and accept that this is the way it is done with 98% of the people I do business with in greater China.

Now, can you imagine dealing with a situation like this without knowing anything about Chinese culture?

The Bottom Line: You won’t get very far, operating in greater China, unless you are personally prepared to deal with communication challenges like these, or you are able to hire someone who knows local culture to deal with them for you. China and the West are a universe apart, culturally. That isn’t a gap that is easily bridged. (But it is an endless source of fascination for a few of us nutjobs!)

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The Bamboo Plant on My Desk

About two months ago, my wife returned from an afternoon of shopping with a present for me.

It was a small bamboo plant for my office.

She watered it once, then left it to me to water.

I got involved in a busy week and let the plant’s base get a bit dry.

My wife found out and told me, with a great deal of concern in her voice, that Chinese people believe that bamboo plants bring good fortune in business, and that I should never let my bamboo plant get thirsty.

She said, to be exact “Letting a bamboo plant die is a very bad thing to a Chinese person.”

I water that plant with great diligence now and, you know what? Business is good.

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Classic Communication Gap: China vs. the West

I cannot tell you how many times I have observed the following conversation between Chinese-speaking and English-speaking businesspeople:

English Speaker: “I need you to lower your price/produce a machine I need/accept a higher price/grant a concession.”

Chinese Speaker: “Hmmm. That will be difficult.”

English Speaker: “Difficult? Well, good then. That means you can do it. If business was easy, everyone would be doing it!”

Chinese Speaker: Baffled silence.

What has just occurred is a complete misunderstanding based both sides’ lack of understanding of context and meaning in communication patterns commonly used in greater China vs. the West.

Here is what each side really means:

English Speaker: “I’m not making enough money and I need your help by reducing the price to $X/buying at a higher price ($X).”

Chinese Speaker: “I’m sorry, that’s impossible. I just can’t do that.”

At this point, the English speaker should say something like: I understand. So, how much can you do, because I can’t do business at this price?

The Chinese speaker will likely come back and say: “I can give you 5% less/more, but not the 10% you asked for.”

Classic. Happens all of the time. If you can learn what Chinese-speaking people really mean when they say things like “That is very difficult,” you’ll be much better equipped to negotiate in greater China.

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Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends…

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.

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US Consumer Concerns About Chinese Food Safety

This is too juicy to pass up writing about. Trader Joe’s, a very successful retail food chain based in California, has pulled all Chinese-made food products from its shelves.

Click here for a brief news item from AFP: US store chain cuts sales of food from China

From the article:

US grocery chain Trader Joe’s said Monday it would stop selling food imported from China due to customers’ concerns about the products’ safety.

“Our customers have voiced concerns about products from this region and we have listened,” Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said in a statement.

“All single ingredient food items sourced from mainland China sre scheduled to be out of our stores by April 1,” she said.

What this means is that (1) if an ingredient for a food product is sourced from China, that food product may still be sold in Trader Joe’s and (2) Trader Joe’s may eventually sell foods that are made entirely in China sometime in the future.

This is the very definition of “growing pains,” folks. The same sort of process occurred in Taiwan, thirty or forty years ago. Here’s how it works:

Stage One: A developing country offers competitive advantages in labor costs and manufacturing speed. Many first world countries switch their manufacturing to this country.

Stage Two: The developing country’s factory owners achieve some success, and then through a combination of penny-pinching greed, lack of foresight and vision, and general lack of understanding of what the foreign market demands, start sending product with quality problems. In the case of products like foods, toys, and tires, this is downright dangerous. Consumers in the first world country react, the media plays up the problems, and the flow of orders starts to dry up as buyers look elsewhere, maybe paying a bit more.

Stage Three: The government of the developing country realizes that if something isn’t done to reign in these factory bosses, the country’s export manufacturing business is going to go to hell in a handbasket. They clamp down on dangerous practices, enforcing compliance with safety regulations.

Stage Four: The developing country recovers its export market, and continues to develop its technology and safety measures.

The interesting question here is, with enforcement in China so haphazard and hit-and-miss, will China successfully get through Stage Three to Stage Four? Several efforts have already been made to crack down on abusers, but in China, where the emperor is far away, the subjects often do what they want.

Bottom Line: If you are sourcing your products from China, you’d damned well better be on the ground, or hire someone trustworthy to be on the ground, watching your suppliers like a hawk. There are many fantastic suppliers in China, but many are still learning how to deal with your standards.

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The Future of Taiwan-Owned Factories in China

As a follow up to my last post, this article in the Taiwan Journal predicts a possible drop off in Taiwanese investment in China as a result of changes in labor laws that came into effect today. From the article:

Many Taiwanese businesses in the Pearl River Delta area of China may soon shut up shop, in order to dodge surging labor costs brought on by China’s new Employment Contract Law. The new law is widely believed to contain the world’s most complete regulations governing labor-related issues, and is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2008.

The situation will be miserable,” predicted a Taiwanese businessman on condition of anonymity. “Big firms will take the lead in calling it quits, followed by their suppliers of raw materials and other supporting factories,” he added Dec. 20.

An unofficial survey shows that one third of the Taiwanese firms in the area either have halted their operations or plan to do so in the near future. The area of the Pearl River Delta includes such regions as Dongguan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Zhuhai.

With the implementation of the new law on the horizon, businesses in the area are worried about the impact on their bottom lines. Taiwanese firms already have to bear various welfare costs, including pension allocation and medical insurance.

Industry insiders estimate the new law will boost manufacturers’ labor costs by an extra 20 percent. In addition, the new law stipulates that employers must offer open-ended labor contracts to employees with over 10 years of service. Employers must also provide severance pay in case of mass layoffs.

Others are not as concerned:

Wang Jeng-tang, president of the Taipei Computer Association, stated Dec. 19 that the notebook manufacturing industry is likely to be affected by the new law. “Maybe in the future notebook manufacturers will raise their prices a little,” he said, describing the impact of the Chinese action as “limited” and “not necessarily negative.”

As a Taiwan-based consultant, I was particularly interested in this little nugget:

The uncertain situation appears to have triggered a wave of Taiwanese businesses moving back to Taiwan, as reflected in the recent increase in demand for land in Taiwan’s industrial zones.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs reported that the US$1.54 billion subsidy for a preferential rental program for industrial-zone land is already close to depletion. Economic Minister Chen Ruey-long has instructed the Industrial Development Bureau, which oversees the program, to expand the scale of the program to accommodate the flood of applicants for industrial land in Taiwan.

I’d like some confirmation of the statements made in this piece. There are a few too many “unofficial surveys,” “estimates,” and “situations that appear to trigger (certain events)” for my comfort level. I’m not going to comment on whether this is good or bad news. My role has always been to advise individual companies about their businesses. I’ve tried to remain out of political issues, which suits both my role and my natural bent towards pragmatism.

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