Negotiating with the Chinese

The negotiating style of the Chinese can only be understood in the context of Chinese culture and the bureaucratic functioning, Confucian social values and Buddhist ethics which make it up. Since most negotiations take place on Chinese territory it is important that the foreigner understand the dynamics of this and how to cope with it. This article provides the means to do so.

There is an international consensus (including the Japanese) that the Chinese are skilful negotiators possessing a unique negotiating style. Among the factors most often mentioned are the slow pace of negotiation, the seriousness and determination of the negotiators along with a strong tendency to sentimentalise and to appeal to general principles. These are not tactical practices but stem directly from Confucian philosophy and the Chinese bureaucratic culture it created. In other words, Chinese negotiating skills are deeply rooted in their cultural and social values.

The cardinal principles

He who does nothing makes no mistakes ; this is the first cardinal principle governing the bureaucracy. Its manifestations were denounced in unequivocal terms by the late Empress Dowager in 1901 as "adherence to antiquated working methods ...cuIt of the written paper ...mountains of correspondence between departments ...fatal use of precedents ... "
The social nexus (guanxi) of the Chinese is seldom centered on the work place (as happens in Japan) but rooted in personal relations established much earlier in the family, and among school friends (1) Furthermore, there is a great reluctance to make new friends in the work place for fear of mixing feelings and self-interest reflected in the common saying fengong fensi, "separate your professional life and your private life " Chinese therefore tend to consider their places of work as slightly insecure and potentially dangerous (their guanxi not being there to protect them)
As a result the second cardinal principle has been developed that the bureaucracy's main task is to protect the bureaucrats (guanguan xianghu ).

The official letter

In the war of self-protection, they have devised a powerful weapon : the gongwen or officiaI letter .The letter (which, ideally speaking, is always an answer or follows a precedent) is first drafted at the very bottom of the hierarchy by a careful junior civil servant. It then goes up the ladder (chief of section, deputy director, director, vice-minister), each level adding corrections on the same paper, chopping it with his personal seal, urging more careful evasiveness until it reaches final approval and the affixing of the Great Seal of the Ministry.
This is a masterpiece : everybody wrote it, nobody wrote it; everybody signed it, nobody signed it ; alI the resources of an old and rich language concur to ensure against future negative interpretation.

Decision making

Gongwen are often the end of the decision-making process which operates along the same lines for the protection of its participants. The visible face of the process is the kaihui (meeting) at which collective and anonymous decisions are made. Of course, such decisions have been taken beforehand in a lengthy exercise of interpersonal consultations and games of influence. The kaihui is only the final rite of protection formalising the consensus. Again no body is responsible since participants are so numerous.

The negotiating team

A Chinese negotiating team is not plenipotentionary but an organic part of the structure it represents and of the consensus it helped to reach. It will stand for and defend positions agreed upon by a much larger number of people inside the organisation. Its aims will be to make these positions prevail and, in all cases, to avoid the terrible responsibility of breaking off negotiations.
Negotiators will be very serious, writing down everything, forgetting nothing, doing their homework very nicely because it is not only their face which is at stake but also that of the consensus-reaching group. They will be obstinate and not afraid of repeating the same thing with the same conviction a hundred times. The objective is to ensure maximum security for the negotiators, but serves also to break the nerve of the other party who, if foreign, is more than often in a hurry.
Foreigners will be tempted to change their approach in order to bypass difficulties so giving way to logical contradictions. For the Chinese a mistake is always costly so they proceed step by step, very carefully, very slowly, leaving time for constant reassessment. The foreign team is always treated with grace and numerous gastronomic and touristic interludes are arranged to ensure the proper tempo. If no results are achieved a new platform must be reached through a new consensus inside the organisation ; the exercise, once more, requiring time.

Virtue in social harmony

It is clear that the mechanisms of Chinese negotiations are not the fruit of a particular shrewdness but rather imposed by the bureaucratic culture. However, the tendencies to sentimentalise and to appeal to general principles go deep into the Chinese system of values.
The Confucian utopia is that of small groups of men who place great value on human relations. This ethic has dominated China for 2,000 years and is still deeply engrained in the collective and individual mind. The words "freedom, democracy and individualism are of recent import and use. The reality is expressed by another vocabulary long codified and subject to no change, where the ultimate good is social harmony and flawless interpersonal relations. The Confucian gentleman is a social man performing with perfection the Five Fundamental Relations (father-son, husband-wife, eIder brother- younger brother, friend-friend, ruler-subject). This is where virtue, which is of paramount importance, lies and Chinese orthodoxy stands for the primacy of virtue over things technical.


These values have been protected so far by a well-known ethnocentrism based on the fact that China has had a long, unique and unbroken tradition ; that China is too big to be a country, but a world ; that Chinese values sustained a long history and vast geography. If negotiations involve travel to the others' culture, the Chinese are less able than others to take the trip. They will set the modes of negotiation in their own culture, and if possible at home.

Friendship is eternal

The tendency to sentimentalise and to appeal to general principles of cooperation and friendship is not a trick but a very deep and significant predisposition. What would be the use of an agreement if it were only for the purpose of exchanging goods or services ? Goods and services disappear; only friendship is eternal. Nothing is more noble than harmony and one of the highest levels o fharmony is friendship. Who would enter a new relationship without the prospect of making long-term friends ?
What appears often to be the "blackmail of friendship " is simply the oldest Chinese affirmation that human relations are the most important thing. Negotiations are not seen as a win/lose battle but as a dignified process of compromise. Furthermore, the final signature does not close a deal but opens a long road for cooperation and friendship.
It is therefore alI important that a proper general framework be first worked out, leaving the details to the end when they will be easily dealt with in the spirit of mutual concessions and face-giving, i.e. in the very spirit of the guanxi which is sharing.

Cyclical time

Time for the Chinese does not have the same value as in the West where it is noted on the horizontal before Christ/after Christ axis. Chinese time computation is cyclical and the cycles start anew every twelve years, every sixty years and at the rise of a new dynasty. Taiwan lived 1985 as the 74th year of the republican era. Psychologically it means that everything is bound to return along endless circles.
The Chinese have a long-range view of things and are not willing to sacrifice a positive outcome in negotiations (a potential growth of the guanxi) to hastiness.


Deeper in the psyche rests the formidable influence of the Chinese version of Buddhism, Chan (or Zen as it is best known under its Japanese name). Chan is not influenced by Indian intellectualism ; it considers reality as only appearance and is very far from the western concepts of salvation and paradise. The Chinese limitless patience is not a virtue in the Christian sense but a fundamental attitude towards life ; no impatience can change one's karma.
Negotiations with the Chinese being almost always held in Chinese mental territory, the foreign counterpart has the longer cultural road to travel and, on the way, is expected to send the appropriate signaIs of a potential Confucian gentleman. This is why there are many articles and talks on negotiating with the Chinese, but who ever heard of a Chinese seminar on negotiating with the Europeans ?


The guidelines to follow in establishing a good working relationship with the Chinese include the following : dress modestly, hide your talents, do not talk too weIl, be humble, be patient, give face, create a guanxi, think of friends, do not drink except with friends and then one thousand cups are not enough, do not look young, make small gifts, eat Chinese food, do not change faces in a team (upsetting).
Other signaIs are no less important because they imply a sense of permanence if not commitment to the Middle Kingdom: living in Asia, travelling to China, learning the Chinese language, etc.
Negotiating with the Chinese is not only an exercise of logic, persuasion, knowledge, power of personality, initiative, etc. but also a ritual deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

©Michel Deverge, Euro-Asia Review, 5, 1, January 1986
Note : (1) I dealt in more detail with the guanxi in the 'Understanding Confucianism,' Euro-Asia Business Review, 2,3 July 1983, pp. 50-53. It is a group including family, friends and acquaintances; integrating affinity, origin, duty, self-interest and schoolday relations, the extent of which is linked to face. Society at large is made up by such spheres of influence.
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