6 June, 2014, by Gemma Morgan-Jones

Doing Business With China – A Guide To Cultural Etiquette

Workshop Leader:  Sujing Xu, University of Nottingham School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies

China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and many businesses from the UK are now taking advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by this expanding market. However, in order to form successful business relationships in China, it is essential to have an understanding of cultural etiquette.

On Thursday 5th June 2014, 18 delegates from local small and medium-sized businesses gathered together for a special workshop funded by the European Regional Development Fund. This event, delivered by The University of Nottingham’s School of Culture, Languages and Area studies, was designed to equip participants with increased cultural awareness and intercultural competence. And as we discovered through the day, there are many subtleties and nuances of Chinese culture to grasp!


We started the day by looking at the important concept of trust. Our native Chinese workshop leader, Sujing Xu, set the scene for our intercultural learning with an insight into China’s low-trust society. Using a number of case studies about scandals from the food and agriculture sectors, Sujing revealed the societal lack of trust in government, public institutions and industry and therefore the Chinese preference to do business with trusted family, friends and acquaintances.

Building trust with Chinese partners is an essential prerequisite of successful business transactions and so Sujing guided us through common practices to build trust. Investing time in your Chinese partners is the ultimate key; spending time getting to know one another and building an emotional connection with one another before talking about business. A helpful quote from venture capitalist Bob Compton reinforced this:

“Be patient, spend Sunday afternoon’s with the entrepreneur’s wife and children, and always start a phone conversation by asking about the other person’s family.”


With the first session having provided a backdrop on the importance of trust, we moved on to look at ‘guanxi’ – the relationship, network or people one has a connection with. Sujing explained that personal relations are valued very highly in China and that Chinese people use their informal personal networks to get things done.

Guanxi involves ethical and emotional connections to people, reciprocity and gift giving. Without guanxi, it can be difficult to obtain good quality resources, education and even healthcare. Chinese society relies heavily on a gatekeeper model of access to goods, opportunities and resources, so guanxi is vital in interactions with those who act as gatekeepers.

Whilst gift-giving is a concept many Westerners are uncomfortable with, it plays an important role in Chinese interactions. The boundaries are blurred between individual perceptions of guanxi and corruption, so Sujing suggested we must all decide for ourselves what our own bottom line is and how far we are prepared to go.

Chinese organisational culture

The Chinese can sometimes seem obsessed with rank, Sujing remarked, but this is because the need for order hierarchy is so embedded into Chinese culture. The power distance between the ‘boss’ and employees is much greater than in Western culture and employees are discouraged from making autonomous decisions. Instead, authorisation must be sought from superiors on even relatively minor matters. This can really slow business interactions down, so Sujing advised delegates to converse directly with the senior staff within an organisation, particularly in the early stages of communication.


Implicit within hierarchy is the concept of face; the image, prestige and status of a person or their organisation. Sujing explained that a junior member of staff will never challenge a more senior colleague, particularly in front of other members of staff, as this would cause them to lose face.

Face has a bearing on our business interactions too. If we are unhappy with a supplier, colleague or customer, how should we challenge them? Sujing advised us that this should never be done in public. We should invite the person to dinner and take great care to reassure them that we like them as a person before raising the issue. Whilst to the Westerner this may seem a laborious way of resolving our differences, Sujing stressed that the consequences of dealing with a problem in the wrong way and causing a person to lose face can be far greater than the original problem itself.

Social norms and taboos

We rounded off the day with a wealth of practical hints and tips to smooth our cross-cultural interactions. We learned that the Chinese approach to time is quite different from our own and that it is wise to allow extra time for meetings and travel than we would normally expect. We also learned about the differences between the Chinese and Western approaches to contracts, with Chinese partners placing a far great value on oral agreements.

Sujing guided us through dining etiquette and toasting, best practice for giving gifts, lucky numbers and colours, good manners and eye contact. We left the session armed with a greater understanding of Chinese culture and plenty of practical tips to apply to our business relationships in China and indeed to all of our interactions with Chinese people, whether colleagues, clients or friends.

Our sincere thanks to Sujing Xu and the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies for a fantastic day.

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