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Business Etiquette in China

China’s culture and business practices differ from Canada’s. As you start or expand your business in China, understanding Chinese business etiquette local customs is important to your success.

If you are a Canadian company and you want to do business in China, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service in China can help you.

On this page:

Qualities valued by the Chinese

Watch our YouTube video: Understanding the Chinese Cultural Context

Approaching business

Top tip: Business in China relies heavily on personal relationships

Doing market research is important in China, but personal relationships are equally essential to business success. It is crucial to establish and maintain good relationships with key business contacts and relevant government officials.

Good ways to start the relationship-building process:

However, it is important to remain aware of potential scams that you may encounter. A common scam unfolds as follows:

It is not mandatory business practice to notarize a contract in China, nor to sign the contract in front of a notary and share the notarization fee.

Watch our YouTube video: Important Elements of Chinese Culture —“Guanxi” and “Renqing”

Attending meetings

Top tip: Don’t be late, and know who’s boss

In general, meetings in China follow the same format as those in Canada, although with a bit more ritual. The Chinese value punctuality, so arrive on time or even slightly early for meetings or other occasions.

Date

Check the Chinese calendar and avoid all national holidays, especially Chinese New Year. The October 1 National Day and other smaller holidays also affect businesses.

Venue set-up

Communicate to your hosts in advance of specific requirements such as projector and screen. They often do not have the in-house capacity to set up the technology on the spot.

Language

Know the language capabilities of your hosts beforehand. Have your own interpretation if your hosts have little English/French capability.

Preparation

Have a detailed proposition of the value of your company and product. Have Chinese-language materials to share with your hosts. Chinese businesses often meet with numerous foreign businesses seeking to establish relationships. So capture their attention at the first meeting to secure follow-up.

Dress Code

If not sure, go formal – it will convey respect and seriousness. There can be a suggestion for men to “go casual” in summer with polo shirts or button-down short-sleeve shirts. Shorts are definitely not appropriate.

Seating Arrangements

The host will take the lead, and you will likely have a name card or designated seat based on your role in your company.

Meeting structure

A formal meeting will start with the senior member of the hosting party introducing himself/herself and colleagues, then stating his/her position on the matter in question. The leading member of your party should then do the same. Subordinate members of the Chinese party will not usually speak unless asked to do so by the most senior person; your observance of the same protocol will have the advantage of conveying who is in authority and who may have special expertise.

Introduction

Here are a few points to bear in mind when doing introductions in China.

  • Address your counterparts by their titles and in order of seniority.
  • Say your name clearly. State both your company and your position. Know that Chinese will refer to their company first, then their title, and then their name.
  • Meetings start with handshakes. If you receive prolonged handshakes when things go well, don’t be shy about holding on.
  • Hand out business cards to the most senior official first. Use both hands to give and to receive. Take a moment to look at and acknowledge the individual’s card. Have your own cards translated into Chinese on one side. Your title is important, as it determines meeting invitations, authority and seating arrangements.
  • Have a Chinese name, ideally one with meaning rather than a transliteration to show respect. The best approach is to have a local contact or native speaker help create one for you. Or visit “Mandarin Tools” under “Useful Links” to create one.

Dining

Top tip: Follow the leader

Business often gets conducted during meals. As with business meetings, food and seating are determined by the hosts.

Beginning to eat

Follow cues from your hosts to begin or wait to be invited. There may be cold dishes placed on the table when you are seated.

Keeping pace

At formal banquets, serving staff may keep up a constant rotation of dishes. They may also change your plate frequently with a clean one. The meal probably will proceed with various meats and peak with a fish course, followed by a staple (rice, dumplings, noodles) and wind down with a sweet or dessert.

Refusing food

The Chinese tend to offer a lot of food, and it is acceptable to refuse. It’s a sign of politeness to accept and sample some of everything. But don’t eat or drink all of something you don’t like, since this means you want more! A nod to the wait staff to change your plate will allow for your preferences to be accommodated unobtrusively.

Drinking

While wine can be preferred at banquets, the Chinese may offer strong distilled alcohol called baijiu for toasts. There may be many toasts during a meal. Never drink from the toasting glass except during a toast. Under normal circumstances, the Chinese will not push you to drink. Eat something before the toasts begin. If you cannot or do not drink for medical or personal reasons, this is respected but you should advise your host of this beforehand.

Toasting

Your host will start off with a toast to your presence/friendship/cooperation. Typically, the principal guest is expected to toast a few courses afterwards. Your toast comments should be warm and sincere, and not longer than your host’s. When toasting, the Chinese normally say “gan bei”, which translates to “bottoms up”. Drinking is sometimes expected as proof of a close relationship where partners can reveal their true selves, although it may vary by region. When in doubt, ask your host. He or she will be very happy to explain and will be impressed by your respect for local customs. It’s also not uncommon to go around the table toasting each member of the party. Take your cue from your hosts and local contact.

Conversation

The banquet is generally a social event in a formal context. Discussion will likely centre around pleasantries, background information on the region or the company, but it is not a time for negotiating or challenges. The focus may not be the food per se, but there will be pride in the offerings provided.

Hosting

Certainly if you would like to host a banquet this is your prerogative, but it’s not expected in common business practice to host a banquet at the conclusion of a deal.

Paying

The host pays. If you are hosting, do not show money in front of your guests. Either have someone slip out and settle the bill or wait until your guests have left.

Concluding

Formal dinners often end suddenly, when the senior member of the hosting party stands up, briefly thanks the guests for attending, and proceeds to leave. If there is a dessert/fruit course, you can expect the end to follow fairly shortly.

Watch our YouTube video: Banquet Etiquette in China

Gift giving

Top tip: Be prepared and buy Canadian

Gift giving is a common Chinese custom that business visitors to China should prepare for and use to advantage. The advice of a Chinese friend or colleague is invaluable in doing this properly.

Watch our YouTube video: Gift Giving in China

Useful links and references

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