Customers, Investors and Bosses

Countries China Great Wall 16.jpg

“There is only one boss: the customer.”

                         Walmart CEO Sam Walton


Increasingly, businesspeople in Western countries have Chinese customers, Chinese investors and Chinese bosses.  This is the inevitable result of China’s growing wealth and economic development.  As Chinese companies invest abroad, they exercise greater control over the firms in which they’ve invested.  As Chinese consumers acquire more disposable income, they become customers for Western firms with stuff to sell them. 

Which puts the shoe very much on the other foot for most Western businesspeople, who’ve always been in the dominant position of a buyer or manager when dealing with China. 

This change in roles can lead to friction and strife for both sides.  Most professionals from Europe and North America find the new situation not only uncomfortable but also confusing. 

So, where do you start?

The defining issue in dealing with Chinese customers, investors and bosses is feudalism.

The Chinese, and indeed most Asian cultures, do not accept the idea that all people are created equal, or that there is some natural equality that exists among human relations.  In fact, quite the opposite – the Chinese believe in the inherent inequality of human relations.  To them, in every relationship and in every interaction, someone is always on top and someone is always on bottom, based on the relative power each person holds. 

Geert Hofstede, the father of modern cross-cultural management theory, called this quality “power distance.”  Power distance is the degree to which a person with less power or status accepts the authority of someone with more power or status.  Most English-speaking countries score low on their power distance measurements – they generally believe that all people are equal.  The Chinese, on the other hand, score very high on their view of power distance – they believe that people are not equal.  To them, all relationships are defined by this inequality.  This is the very essence of feudalism – a power structure where everyone agrees that people of higher status have more rights than people of lower status.

Confucius codified this thinking in The Five Relationships:

·      King and subject

·      Father and son

·      Husband and wife

·      Older brother and younger brother

·      Senior friend and junior friend

In each case, the “higher” ranking party has the responsibility to guide and care for the “lower” ranking party; the “lower” ranking party has the responsibility to respect and follow the “higher” ranking party.

As foreign as this idea may seem to you, it is deeply ingrained in the thinking of your Chinese customer, investor and boss, and it will significantly influence the way they interact with you.

On the positive side, this way of thinking absolves you of a lot of personal responsibility, and it tends to be very, very durable – once a Chinese person has formed such a relationship, they are likely to stay in it for a long time. 

On the negative side, it makes many Westerners feel stifled, micromanaged, and disrespected.

In any event, it’s an important aspect of Chinese culture that will have a big impact on your daily interactions with your Chinese customer, investor, or boss.

This section looks at these relationships with people to whom you are selling something – your products, your company, your time.  They’re your customer, your investor or your boss.  They believe they have power over you and they don’t hesitate to exercise that power.  I’ll discuss problems that you’re likely to run into with these people and suggest constructive ways of addressing those issues.