A few months ago I spoke at a seminar out East at which Jason Patent also spoke. Jason gave the single best talk I have ever seen/heard on the cultural differences between China and the United States as those differences relate to business. Based on that, I asked him to write some guest posts on China’s business culture and this is the first in what will be a three part series.

Jason is currently Vice President, Communications & Marketing for Orchestrall, Inc., a China- focused market access firm with its U.S. offices in Philadelphia and offices throughout China (Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dalian, and Xi’an to be exact). Jason has over two decades of experience with China, including over seven years living in China and he is fluent in Chinese. Much of what Jason does today for Orchestrall involves helping foreign companies in China improve their China marketing and communications. Jason has a Ph.D in Linguistics from Berkeley, an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Stanford, and an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard. Bottom line though is that he really really knows his stuff.

So without further ado, here is Jason’s first post:

Imagine for a moment that you’re going to set up a lemonade stand in Midtown Manhattan one hot Saturday afternoon. You know it’s going to be a tough sell, because New Yorkers are tough customers, and you have a lot of competition. So you want to take every step you can to ensure success.

Question: Would you neglect to bring, say, cups? Or a table? Or a pitcher? Of course not.

Why, then, do so many Western companies send their people to China without proper training in the Chinese mindset? Business is unpredictable wherever you go. Companies spend countless dollars on ROI studies and risk management, just for a vague sense of certainty. Yet one enormous risk factor, and threat to ROI, is staring them in the face: the possibility of investing precious dollars and hours in sending people to China unprepared to deal with the day-to-day muck of living and working in China.

In a recent report on failed expat assignments in China, executive coach Ed Britton wrote: “Western culture notices things if they are easy to see and measure. The effects of culture don’t translate easily to accounting records. But, start counting the number of expatriates who don’t complete their stay, and that number will go straight to the bottom line.”

One such example came to me through some colleagues with years of experience in China. They once came across an American executive whose entire, carefully planned, hard-fought-for China venture came crashing down for lack of mindset preparation.

The executive was an American businessman trying to hawk his wares in Southwest China. It was a major venture, and he felt prepared. After all, his firm had grabbed major contracts throughout the U.S. and Europe, and he was no neophyte when it came to doing the research, wrangling local support, and doing what he had to in order to succeed.

Investing significant resources in connecting with the right people, he managed to secure a personal meeting with the Governor and Vice Governor of one of the provinces in the region — no small feat. But he blew it. Despite all his business savvy and preparation, in one meeting — one meeting — he sent his China prospects down the tubes.

Here’s what happened. A take-charge guy, this American businessman knew what he wanted and never hesitated to share his thoughts with subordinates and colleagues. His direct style had been a major factor in his success. But in China it was disastrous. He began the meeting with the Governor and Vice Governor as if he were running it. After all, he had set it up; it was his show. They were there to hear what he had to say. Right? Wrong. Strike one.

Not long into the meeting, the businessman expressed some concerns about some problems he had encountered working with the provincial government. The Governor sought to reassure him, using a common Chinese term, fàngxīn, which in this context translates best as “don’t be worried.” Unfortunately, the interpreter used a different translation, appropriate to other contexts, but not to this one: “Take it easy.” Which might as well have been, “Relax, buddy, there’s no problem here.” One small misunderstanding led to another; tension increased. Strike two.

Feeling threatened and unsure of the situation, the businessman did what came naturally to him as an American: he dug in his heels. He restated his concerns with more vigor, laying the blame at his counterparts’ doorstep. The Governor, in turn, handled a clearly upset person the only way he knew how. Laughing nervously and trying to reassure the man, he used the same phrase he’d used before: “Don’t be worried.” But the American didn’t get it. Strike three.

The result? Inevitable, and predictable. A year’s worth of investment, preparation and research down the drain. His venture went nowhere.

This businessman was no Pollyanna. He was savvy enough to know the value of meeting with well-placed government officials, and to make the meeting happen. That’s already further along than 99 in 100 Western businesspeople in China. Yet it wasn’t enough.

What makes this story even more painful is how predictable the entire affair was to anyone with on-the-ground experience in China. It would have taken a minimal investment of time and money for this executive to be properly prepared.

Sadder still, stories like this play out every day in China. So very many opportunities are missed, and so very much time and money are wasted — and all for something completely predictable and avoidable.

Business is not just business, despite our American insistence to the contrary. The only way to succeed in China is with the curiosity to examine our own beliefs and practices, and the humility to see other ways of doing things as equally valid. And the good sense to spend a bit of time and money now to save, and make, much more down the line.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.