In this series of posts I have been 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 call the “courtship” phase. The second post considered what Pye says about the Chinese tendency to prefer agreements on generalities. In my third post I examined Pye on specific Chinese negotiating tactics. In this final post I summarize Pye’s tips for negotiating with Chinese companies.
Take general principles seriously. According to Pye, the Chinese usually prefer to begin with agreement about general principles before moving to concrete items, while foreigners like to begin with specifics and avoid generalities. Agreement on generalities allows the Chinese to make headway by drawing subsequent negotiations back to the “spirit” of the agreement. If you follow the Chinese route it is imperative you decide ahead of time the precise general principles you are prepared to accept.
Avoid the indebtedness trap. Chinese negotiators often seek to put foreigners in a position where they will feel obligated or indebted. Pye says that foreign negotiators need to be aware of the obligations they may be accruing. They should be skeptical in the face of the “effusion of personal friendship” often used to elicit an acknowledgement of the indebtedness. See How NOT To Choose Your China Business Partner. And Why I Take Cabs.
Prevent exaggerated expectations. Exuberant Western sales techniques are often read to mean the foreigner is prepared to do more than they intend. Once the Chinese assume a relationship has been established they will genuinely count on generosity and flexibility from their partners. If the Chinese decline an offer of generosity in one instance, they may consider themselves entitled to ask for the same kind of generosity in future. Chinese “face-saving” can involve turning down initial offers but there is no loss of face in asking for help later.
Handle the shaming. When disappointed, Pye says, Chinese negotiators tend not to search for appropriate counter moves but attempt to shame the foreign party with moralistic appeals and denunciation. They believe that if the other party can be shamed into doing the “right” thing they will be grateful and not resentful. You can often satisfy the shaming tactic with symbolic responses.
Master the record. A Chinese negotiator will normally be completely knowledgeable about the deal history and will test the other side’s memory to advantage. What was previously discussed or settled may be contradicted in an attempt to take advantage of new negotiators or changed circumstances. There is a belief that foreigners are careless and deserve to be penalized if they make mistakes. Pye’s tip is that you keep an exact record of your negotiation history.
Control the damage. It will inevitably be necessary, at times, to adopt positions the Chinese may find offensive or that may violate their beliefs about how people with mutual interests should behave. Pye’s tip is to concentrate on limiting the damage and not engage in mutual recriminations, which will only convince the Chinese side that the foreign side is insecure. According to Pye, the Chinese have a strong need to publicize what they perceive as mistreatment. Avoid an aggressive defense at all cost. Better to pass something off as an unavoidable misunderstanding about which the Chinese side has the right to be upset.
Pye’s report was commissioned by the US Air Force in the early 1980s. As I said at the start of this series, though some of his political and economic observations are somewhat dated, I was nonetheless struck by his report’s enduring relevance and I now recommend it to anyone interested in doing business with China.