Negotiating with Chinese Companies

In the early 1980s the US Air Force commissioned Lucian Pye, an eminent sinologist, to write a report on how Chinese negotiate with foreigners. Published in 1982, it was called Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style.

Based on extensive interviews with foreigners engaged in China trade, Pye’s paper analyzes the negotiating style the Chinese use with foreign businesspeople. Pye’s overall conclusion was that the way most negotiations are initiated usually sets in motion a process that helps the Chinese side achieve its preferred strategies and tactics.

Though some of Pye’s political and economic observations are now 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. A recurring theme is Chinese mastery of contractual preliminaries.

One key point: 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 the 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.

The “Courtship” Phase

In Pye’s view, foreigners often follow the historical practice of coming as guests seeking permission to do business in China. This naturally casts them in the role of supplicants asking for Chinese beneficence. They are visitors from afar and their hosts call the tune on the procedures and the timing of meetings. Problems associated with visas, invitations and access to officials or business leaders contribute to foreign anxiety about “doing the wrong thing” when doing business in China. So when problems arise, the foreigners are prone to suspect they are somehow at fault. In this way, the Chinese hosts gain the advantages of surprise and uncertainty in agenda arrangements.

According to Pye, the Chinese tend to limit preliminary exchanges to generalities so as to size up the foreign party and to determine its vulnerabilities, especially any lack of patience. At the same time, foreign business leaders tend to jump straight in. The novelty and status associated with visiting China frequently compel foreign CEOs to be the first to engage in talks with the Chinese, without waiting for subordinates to prepare the ground. The graciousness and bountifulness of Chinese hospitality can make the foreign visitor feel awkward about being too businesslike. Consequently, foreign CEOs tend to be very obliging in following the Chinese practice of seeking initial agreement on very general principles, without clarification on the specific details. Much of what occurs at the preliminary stage has a tacit quality and foreigners frequently misjudge their progress. In taking this approach, Pye says, foreigners violate one of the first principles of negotiations and diplomacy — summit meetings should never take place without extensive preliminary spadework by subordinates.

When mid level executives are later sent to work out the details of a contract they usually discover the Chinese want to rely on the agreed “principles” put in place by the CEO. Such principles were often taken by the foreigners to be no more than ritual statements, but the Chinese tend to use them to practical advantage by suggesting the other party has not lived up to their “spirit.” See China LOI and MOU: Don’t Let Them Happen to You. Instant authorities on China, these CEOs returned from their initial visits to report success, saying they found the Chinese to be cooperative and gracious. The mid level executives and others tasked with working out details then come under great pressure. They are constrained to avoid acting in ways that might irritate the Chinese and spoil relationships established by the boss. So, when the big guns are sent in first the foreigners lose the advantage of dispatching their highest people for critical negations at the consummation of the deal. Their second appearances must now be limited to generalities where civilities prevail.

The Contract Formation Stage

Chinese culture traditionally shuns legal considerations and instead stresses ethical and moralistic principles. By contrast, Westerners are thought to be highly legalistic. The Chinese tend to reject the typical Western notion that agreement is best sought by focusing on specific details and concrete matters, while avoiding discussions of generalities or rhetoric. The Chinese prefer to agree on general principles before dealing with details. They can, Pye says, be tenacious in holding to their principles but surprisingly flexible about details. The Chinese focus is on the “spirit” of the deal. Agreement on principles usually takes the form of letters of intent or protocols, the purpose of which often mystifies the Westerner. The Chinese attach great importance to symbols and symbolic matters. Symbols such as the spirit of the agreement have a reality for the Chinese and there is a distinct Chinese bias in favor of the publicity or “face” these symbols can generate.

The Chinese, Pye says, conceive of their business relationships in longer and more continuous terms than Westerners. They expect an agreement to set the stage for a growing relationship in which it will be proper for the Chinese to make increasing demands. A proclivity for seemingly unending negotiations can even make the Chinese insensitive to the possibility that “canceling” contracts may cause trouble in the relationship with the foreign party. From the Chinese perspective, nothing about a contract is ever final. Westerners usually think a contract will provide for a given period of fixed and predictable behavior but the Chinese look for continuous bargaining and regard this bargaining itself as suggesting an enduring relationship. For Westerners there can be a great deal of give and take before agreement is reached, but afterwards the expectation is that neither party should lean on the other to seek further advantages. For the Chinese, the very achievement of a formalized agreement, like the initial agreement on principles, means that the parties now understand one other well enough that each can expect further favors. They will therefore not hesitate to suggest changes immediately on the heels of an agreement. They tend not to treat the signing of a contract as signaling a completed agreement.

Pye advances several explanations for the Chinese tendency to seek early agreement on general principles. First, he says, it is easier to extract concessions when details are to be worked out later on. Second, agreement on principles can easily be turned into agreement on goals. This can in turn support a later insistence that all discussion of concrete issues must support these goals. Finally, Pye says, agreement on general principles can be used later to substantiate tactical claims of bad faith.

Specific 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.


Negotiation Tips for Foreigners 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.

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.