In this series of posts I am looking at themes explored by Lucian Pye in his work Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style. Pye concludes that the way most Sino-Foreign negotiations are conducted helps the Chinese side apply its preferred strategies and tactics. My first post looked at how Chinese companies tend to control the preliminaries during what I have called the “courtship” phase. The second post considered what Pye has to say about the Chinese tendency to prefer agreements on generalities. In this third post I examine what he has to say about specific Chinese negotiating tactics.
According to Pye, Chinese negotiators tend to use the following tactics:
Open with flattery — In response to flattering remarks the foreigner feels compelled to give an enthusiastic affirmation. The foreigner is then called on to give an emphatic denial of a feigned, self-deprecating remark. This puts the foreigner on the back foot from the outset.
Operate on two levels — There is the manifest level of bargaining about the concrete and there is also the latent level at which attempts are made to strike emotional bargains based on dependency. Chinese negotiators seek relations in which the foreigner will feel solicitous toward China, thus implicitly becoming a protector and more a superior than an equal.
Focus on mutual interests — Westerners like to think of themselves as conciliators. The Chinese tend to reject the principle of compromise and prefer instead to stress mutual interests. When mutual interests have been established it is easier to ask the foreign party to bear a heavier burden without protest.
Use meetings as seminars — Negotiations are seen partly as information-gathering operations. Foreign competitors are played off against against one another to extract maximum technical intelligence from presentations. Negotiating sessions are used frequently for training purposes. The foreigner is encouraged to perform so as to impress the passive Chinese host. The obliging guest entertains in repayment for hospitality and brings “gifts of knowledge”. Put simply, Chinese companies often claim to want to do a deal with you when all they really want is to get access to your technology or know-how. I cannot stress enough how often our China lawyers see this sort of situation.
Blur the lines of authority — You can’t tell who reports to whom or where the apparent leader fits in the hierarchy of the Chinese company. Negotiating teams tend to be large but the lines of authority are diffuse and vague. Chinese negotiators are often unsure of their mandates and of the probable decisions of their superiors. They therefore tend to give inaccurate signals about the state of negotiations. Foreigners persist in trying to find a particular person who has command authority at each level. In China it cannot be assumed that power is tied to responsibility. Proof of a person’s importance often lies precisely in their being shielded from accountability.
Never say “no” — Chinese negotiators will frequently seem to be agreeing when they say something is “possible” but often this is an ambiguous way of saying “no”. They will often respond with silence to a proposal and then at a much later date suddenly return with interest.
Never telegraph their next move — Chinese negotiators don’t telegraph their next moves through displays of emotion. The level of friendliness or impersonality remains the same whether negotiations are heading for success or failure. This brings surprises. Warm and progressively friendly meetings can lead to disappointing outcomes. Chinese negotiators are quite prepared to end meetings or negotiations on a negative note. As negotiators often have little authority they often find it prudent to maintain a negative attitude. At the same time, apparently disinterested negotiators can suddenly announce that a positive agreement is possible.
Exploit Chinese members of the foreign team — Ethnic Chinese associated with the foreign team will be sought out in the belief that they are naturally sympathetic to China. Our China attorneys have also seen many instances where an Ethnic Chinese person on the foreign side is accused of disloyalty for not siding with the Chinese side in the negotiations — always in Chinese, of course.
Use “shaming” — Chinese negotiators may be quick to point out “mistakes” in an effort to put the foreign party on the defensive. There is a deep belief that people will be shattered by the shame of their faults so there is a tendency to make an issue over trivial slip-ups and misstatements.
Make big asks — Chinese negotiators often have no hesitation in presenting what they must understand are unacceptable demands. These demands are often accompanied by a hint that they will be withdrawn in return for only modest or symbolic concessions. Extreme language is often used to obtain symbolic victories.
Stall — Chinese negotiators are masters of creative use of fatigue. They have, according to Pye, great staying power and almost no capacity for boredom. These traits keep foreigners’ hopes alive. This approach may also reflect lack of experience, bureaucratic problems or a subordinate’s fear of criticism from above. Conversely, when agreement reached it is often the Chinese who become impatient for deliveries by the foreigners. For more on this tactic, see Doing Business In China Requires Patience. Don’t Just Be Leaving On That China Jet Plane.
As I have said before, Pye never moralizes or suggests there is anything wrong with the Chinese approach. He merely points out how different it is from the typical Western approach, leaving readers to conclude that foreigners ignore or disregard Chinese negotiating tactics at their own peril. This is certainly consistent with our view that one should not rush to blame the Chinese when things go wrong.
In my final post in this series I will outline Pye’s tips for foreigners when negotiating with Chinese companies.