In China it is common to encounter Western business people looking for introductions to Chinese executives or government officials. This is usually accompanied by the idea that these kinds of powerful connections, or guanxi, can be the lynchpin in establishing a successful business or venture in the Chinese market. And while possessing strong guanxi in China can indeed help one’s business to grow and flourish, actually obtaining it is not as easy as some may think.
The Chinese think about introductions and networking in a very different manner than most Westerners. While many Western business people thrive on an open and all inclusive model for meeting new people, influential Chinese business people are more low-key, and prefer to remain within their own social circles. Despite this, it is indeed possible to network with and obtain introductions to the influential in China, though, to succeed, it is essential for Westerners to study and understand the Chinese mindset. Below, the author lists several common points of concern he has observed in Chinese executives and officials.
“Who Are You and Why Should I Care?”
Power and money are the true capital in modern China, and the Chinese business and political “influencers” do not exit on the same level as the rest of Chinese society. In order to be able to directly connect and converse with these influential Chinese power players, it is vital to possess something to which they can respect and relate. For example, CEOs and top executives from well known Western MNCs will have a better chance at obtaining introductions or meetings with their Chinese counterparts. This is not merely due to a relative equality in position and power, but also because high-level Western business people (and politicians) are likely to have high-level connections within their own countries. However, for entrepreneurs and executives of smaller companies, a lack of prestige and connections may prove to be a barrier to obtaining introductions. Status is very important in China, and unfortunately some people just do not “make the cut.”
“Why Should I Share My Network With You?”
Although the Chinese in general are very polite and enthusiastic when talking to Westerners, they are also usually more reserved and cautious with their personal network of contacts. To a greater extent than many countries in the West, the Chinese rely deeply on their networks for both social and business functions, which are essential to life and business in modern China. In fact, many successful and influential business people in China have succeeded specifically due to their own networks. As such, the Chinese are usually very cautious about opening up such an important part of their life to someone they don’t know, no matter how powerful. Therefore, networking in China seldom occurs as it might in Western countries. Generous amounts of time is required for both parties to get to know one another other, both before and after an introduction takes place. After all, to paraphrase an English expression, the Chinese don’t let just anyone see the goose that laid the golden egg.
“What’s In It For Me?”
Even if an influential Chinese person is impressed with a Westerner’s position and with what he or she can offer, there may be an additional factor causing an influential Chinese business person to hesitate. After all, if a Westerner is offering a potential Chinese contact, introduced through a Chinese intermediary, a chance to increase their own money, influence or power, why should the intermediary not get anything in return? In fact, many introductions that take place in China are not necessarily one close friend introducing another. If a Chinese person claims to have guanxi in a certain sector, they may simply mean that they “know a guy” who then knows “another guy.” Therefore, if the person that they are introducing may not actually be a close friend at all, there may be no guarantee of a payout for the Chinese contact. In these cases the Chinese which a Westerner hopes will provide an introduction may feel more comfortable waiting until they get something which they want. It is also common practice in China, especially in sales, for facilitators of business deals to receive unofficial commissions or other perks. Within the sometimes-murky realm of high-level personal relationships in China, nothing is free.
“Will This Damage My Relationship With My Contact?”
Lastly, the Chinese people are universally concerned about staying on good terms with their business and personal contacts. Thus, before providing introductions into their network, one issue an influential Chinese person will consider is not only the potential benefit (for their contact as well as themselves), but also any potential risks as well. For example, if a Chinese person discovers any risks to a valuable relationship, he/she will likely choose to pass on providing a specific introduction.
How Can “Regular” Western Business People Get Introductions in China?
Unfortunately, there just isn’t any quick and easy way to gain instant access to the rich and powerful in China, especially if one lacks power and prestige of one’s own. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to gain access to influential Chinese business people. This author, through his own experience in China, points out a few tips below that could help:
1) Spend time on-the-ground in China: When it is impossible to reach out and connect with powerful Chinese directly, it may be necessary to first spend some time in China, learning about the business environment and working within the local business community. Many Chinese cities, especially the large metropolises, possess numerous business and trade organizations at which it is very easy to meet and greet a variety of Chinese business people. Through this type of networking, it may be possible over time to slowly get in touch with influential Chinese.
2) Create a Successful Company: Creating your own company or venture, which either has a strong advantage in the Chinese market or presents advantages for Chinese companies doing business abroad, can create new corridors for connecting with influential business people in China. On one hand, a successful company or brand may entice offers for partnership or purchase. On the other, certain Western regions (e.g. Silicon Valley in the USA) have large entrepreneur communities focusing on the Chinese market. Networking in your home country in this context may present the opportunity to meet powerful Chinese VC executives, who in turn would have their own powerful circles of contacts.
3) Expand your network in your home country: Building a strong network of connections in one’s own country is also a method which can build a foundation for later contact with China’s business “influencers.” This is especially relevant in light of the fact that an increasing number of Chinese companies are starting to set up operations in foreign countries. While its true that many Chinese returnees or overseas workers join these companies, there is no substitute for a lifetime of experience in one’s home country. If a Westerner has something the Chinese want (e.g. connections and knowledge), they may have the chance to get to know some of the powerful executives in charge of these firms.
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any additional questions about connecting with the influential business elite in China? Do you have any helpful examples from your own experiences from working with the Chinese that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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