Doing Business with China: The Path to Prosperity Remains Tricky in the People's Republic of China, but American Entrepreneurs and Businessmen-As Well as the Chinese Themselves-Finally Appear to Be on the Road to, If Not Riches, at Least Resolve

By Weidenbaum, Murray | USA TODAY, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Doing Business with China: The Path to Prosperity Remains Tricky in the People's Republic of China, but American Entrepreneurs and Businessmen-As Well as the Chinese Themselves-Finally Appear to Be on the Road to, If Not Riches, at Least Resolve


Weidenbaum, Murray, USA TODAY


CHINA IS A COUNTRY undergoing a historic transformation. Its economy has been growing more rapidly during the past quarter-century than any other nation of significant size. In this light, we can sympathize with the criticisms on the pan of Western companies doing business there as well as with the reports by Chinese authorities of progress in business-government relations.

Many analysts have observed that the influx of Western companies into China has been accompanied by changes in business practices. U.S. headquartered firms in particular have brought a tradition of strict internal roles and procedures to their China operations. This trend has been accelerated by the return of young Chinese business students who have been educated abroad. Prodded by nongovernmental organizations and domestic activist groups, some large U.S. corporations have set up codes of conduct for their factories in China and other developing nations. These higher standards cover workplace operations as well as environmental responsibilities.

A related factor is the sharp decline in the importance of the large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and thus the fading away of the traditional "iron rice bowl" (lifetime employment regardless of performance). In 1981, SOEs accounted for 75% of China's industrial production. By 2004, that share was down to 20%. SOEs increasingly have entered into joint ventures with foreign-based companies. To attract international investors, many SOEs have adopted international accounting standards.

A more generalized--but important--factor in encouraging China-based companies to adopt Western business modes of operation is China joining the World Trade Organization with the accompanying responsibilities of membership. Along these lines, one Chinese executive was quoted as saying that, several years ago, a $20,000 business gift would be given without creating problems, but that such action is "unthinkable today." He noted that the gift giver likely would be fired.

As a powerful and self-contained civilization for four millennia, China has developed responses to the problems of human activity that often are different from those prevailing in the West. The Confucian approach is complex and varied in its application. Much attention is given to the importance of mutual trust among the interacting parties. The contrast is vivid with the popular Chinese view of Western business thinking as dominated by arm's length decisionmaking, short-term profit taking, and frequent change of employment. The traditional Chinese practice of guanxi (loosely translated as "relationships") is considered to be a key factor in doing business. It may take months--or even a year or more--to establish a long-term relationship. This typically involves developing a personal relationship based on friendship and trust. That process may include hosting people for meals, doing them favors, giving them gifts, and showing attention to their private concerns. Although guanxi is foreign to Western business representatives, the particular practices are not that arcane. Many U.S. marketing executives have generous company-financed entertainment allowances, and expressing interest in the health of another person's family is not unusual. Perhaps the basic differences are in ten-as of the speed that American companies are accustomed to and the greater pervasiveness of relationships in China.

Nevertheless, the differences, albeit at times subtle, can be important. For example, a greater Chinese tendency to avoid conflict is explained by the expectations that direct conflict will hurt the basic relationship with the other party.

Substantial changes have occurred in recent years concerning China's policies toward business and in internal business decisionmaking. Foreign companies finally enjoy much greater access to markets in China. Import licenses and quotas virtually have been eliminated while tariffs have been reduced by nearly 40%--and tariffs on information technology products have been done away with altogether. …

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Doing Business with China: The Path to Prosperity Remains Tricky in the People's Republic of China, but American Entrepreneurs and Businessmen-As Well as the Chinese Themselves-Finally Appear to Be on the Road to, If Not Riches, at Least Resolve
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