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
- Approaching business
- Attending meetings
- Gift giving
- Useful links and references
Qualities valued by the Chinese
- Saving and giving face
- Respect for elders and rankings
Watch our YouTube video: Understanding the Chinese Cultural Context
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:
- attending industry networking events
- contacting industry associations and municipal or provincial investment promotion bodies
- following up on personal introductions
However, it is important to remain aware of potential scams that you may encounter. A common scam unfolds as follows:
- you are approached by an unknown Chinese company with a large purchase order of substantial value;
- they insist on a contract very quickly;
- they then insist that you come to China to sign the contract and pay the notarization fee (typically, a certain percentage of the contract value).
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”
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.
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.
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.
Know the language capabilities of your hosts beforehand. Have your own interpretation if your hosts have little English/French capability.
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.
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.
The host will take the lead, and you will likely have a name card or designated seat based on your role in your company.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- Who: Typically, a single large group gift is presented to the lead of the Chinese delegation by the lead of the Canadian delegation and vice versa.
- What: Gifts should not be too expensive. The gifts you receive will often have strong local associations to local identity and therefore pride to the giver. The best gifts to offer in return will be items that are unique to Canada. The Chinese are fond of dark red, gold or blue, which are all appropriate colours for gift wrapping.
- When: Gifts are usually given at the end of an introductory meeting or of a banquet. Delegations visiting China are normally expected to offer gifts to their hosts, and the opposite is true for Chinese delegations to Canada. Prepare accordingly.
- How: Always give and receive gifts or anything of value with two hands. Note that it is common in China for the recipient to refuse the offer of a gift at first. The giver should persist, and the recipient will eventually accept.
- No-Go: Avoid clocks and scissors or other sharp items such as knives or letter openers, all of which have negative associations in China. Avoid wrapping gifts in white or black, which are colours associated with funerals.
Watch our YouTube video: Gift Giving in China
Useful links and references
- Mandarin Tools
This link is a good place to start for creating a Chinese name, but ensure that you have a native Chinese speaker check over your name before use.
- Chinese Culture
This link discusses Chinese culture and how it relates to the business environment.
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