21 February 2013

China and Change

Daisy is a China specialist and resident of Shanghai with over 15 years experience  in producing and directing television programmes for international broadcasters including the BBC, PBS, Channel 4, ITV, FIVE and National Geographic.

Over the past 15 years of living, working and traveling in Greater China I have had my own fair share of culture shocks and bumps. And as a TV producer constantly working with different crews arriving from the UK and experiencing China for the first time I have had a ring side seat at other people’s surprise and frustrations too.

Since I first went to teach English in Chengdu, western China in 1995 the country has changed beyond recognition. Back then, Chengdu was still a traditional town of small timber framed houses, winding alleys and a sea of bicycles. Today it’s considered the economic capital of south western China and boasts more designer shops, expensive cars and luxury housing than many towns in the UK.

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But this glitz and glamour of cities like Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing can be deceptive. While the infrastructure, skyscrapers, brand names and shopping malls that populate these cities suggest a first world country with a western outlook, the attitudes and cultural leanings of many of their residents have not moved as quickly – and this includes attitudes towards those conducting business in China.

Often culture and mindsets take longer to change than economies and what we see on the outside may deceive us into thinking that we are more at home than we actually are. The fact that businessmen arrive at airports and hotels in China and are met by modern architecture, design and fashion doesn’t necessarily mean the staff working there or their business counterparts will be thinking the way they do ‘back home’.

Playing the role of ‘middle-man’ as I often do when filming or having meetings, has given me the opportunity to witness these problems of communication at first hand. A lack of language skills and intercultural competence can have a serious bearing on business success in China.

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Chinese culture has over 5,000 years of history and a wealth of rich traditions and philosophies that will take more than a few skyscrapers to erode. Doing some cross-cultural training and research before you go to China will undoubtedly pave the way for smoother communication when you are there, and I highly recommend Barry Tomalin’s articles on this blog in that regard.

Look out for my next blog where I will be shedding more light on specific examples of how foreigners doing business in China get it wrong – and what they need to understand about Chinese culture and history to ensure they are more likely to succeed while doing business with their Chinese counterparts.

Of course if you have any personal experience of the issues above do leave any comments or questions in the space below!

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