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Dispelling Common Chinese Business Culture Myths In 2018

by Bobby Lee | 26 January 2018


Many articles you may read on Chinese business culture are well-meaning, but for foreigners who haven't travelled to China for business before and are uninitiated, they could add to the sense of unease about "how you'll cope somewhere so foreign."

It's 2018 now, and China is a very modern country. Let's dispel some of the common myths and lay out some advice to current questions.

These are some of the common worries we've heard from people who're going to be travelling to China on business...


Will I need to eat dogs, cats, rats, and snakes?


You're more likely to eat at McDonald's in China than you are to eat weird and wonderful foods.

True, 'delicacies' do exist, but in large cities in developed areas restaurants will usually limit choices to fish, pork, beef, and chicken.

If you're visiting a factory in a more remote place then there's a chance you may see more traditional foods, but the largest problem with these choices for the business traveller is that they'll probably have a lot of bones and be fairly basic.


Will people look down on me if I don't follow strict Chinese business culture norms in meetings?

It's true that handshakes may be different, that deference may be shown to senior figures, and, in the case of governmental figures, attendees may give a slight bow, but as a foreigner it's going to be fine to just be respectful and to be yourself.

Just follow people's lead and don't be a boor, but of course, why would you act in a strange manner? You wouldn't, I assume, bang your fist on the table and start shouting, or sit in the boss' seat in a business meeting in your own country, and so in China acting in the same polite way is the norm.

Everyone in your meeting wants a win-win.

It's highly unlikely that your Chinese counterparts are going to look down on you because, say, you took their business card with one hand and then put it in your wallet!

If you want to take the time to understand Chinese business culture in advance and put certain small habits into action this won't go unnoticed and is a positive thing, but as a foreigner expectations for you to behave in a 'Chinese way' will be extremely low.


If I mention taboo subjects will I get in trouble?

Common sense applies here. If you have Chinese friends and wish to discuss political or taboo topics with them over a private dinner, great, no problem if they're game.

But at a business lunch or in a meeting, use common sense. You wouldn't put people you're having a business meting with in your country on the spot by mentioning taboo topics, so why do it in China?

It's certainly not the case that having a measured conversation with local friends about political topics will cause a swarm of police to arrive out of nowhere. It may well be that the 'facts' you think you know may be tempered by an understanding of how the Chinese see things, allowing you to gain a new perspective. In 2018, you'll find that most educated people here are well-travelled and well-informed enough to know that there is more to the world than just China, and that foreign people are often curious about topics like these. 

Attending or organising marches or instigating local people to protest against authority is a serious no-no, so if you have strong feelings about certain topics and feel like shouting them from the rooftops, best leave that until you return home.

Honestly though, China is pretty benign and people here are generally fairly relaxed, so get into that frame of mind before visiting.


10 step guide to Chinese Business & Culture


Will I need to drink like a fish at business dinners?

Need to? No. Have the chance to? Yes.

A lot of business dinners, especially with guys, will have an element of drinking or competition. This will usually be glasses of beer, or shots of baijiu (strong white liquor).

Camaraderie, joking about, and back-slapping is all a part of guys having fun in China, and so if business counterparts take you out to dinner they'll be offering you a few drinks. These dinners are often fairly informal, so don't expect it to be a sober, sit-down affair in a quiet restaurant.


  • Loosen up, have a couple of drinks!
  • Enjoy the food and have a laugh
  • Smile and be fun


  • Don't feel that you need to get very drunk
  • Don't refuse to have fun
  • Don't ignore toasts, just sip a little instead of doing shots

If you don't drink, or have medical issues preventing any or excessive consumption of alcohol, don;t worry no one is going to force you.

These social occasions are more about having fun and getting to know one another, so rather than worrying about drinking games, it's better just to have a laugh and get into the spirit of having fun with your hosts.


I don't like smoking!

Loads of people smoke in China. Indoors, outdoors, anything goes, especially in smaller towns and cities.

You won't be expected to smoke, but be prepared for people to be smoking during dinner for instance, and don't get offended if you're not a fan. It's only a temporary situation.


I don't speak Chinese, will this cause offence?

Would you be offended if Chinese business counterparts came to your office and didn't speak much English? Of course not! You'd be friendly and try to accommodate them as best you could.

Totally the same in China.

If you can say some basics, the 'hellos,' 'goodbyes,' 'thank yous,' and 'very kind of yous,' then your hosts will be pleased.

Having a translator for serious business negotiations etc. will, of course, be a good idea.


Is it true that when the Chinese say one thing, they mean another?

This is a bit of a myth as well.

It is fair to say that in a business negotiation Chinese people may consciously try to be as accommodating as possible, even if it means avoiding saying 'no' directly for fear of 'putting off' their foreign counterparts.

Where foreigners are probably quite direct with the way that they speak in meetings, this won't always be the case in China; but that 'more-or-less,' or 'maybe' is well-meaning.

Ultimately, what's in the contract needs to be followed, and so make sure that commitments are set in stone and then there can be no confusion on either side.


Do I need to bribe people to get things done?

Of course not! Doing business is the same as you country.

China, like most countries, isn't perfect, but the misconception that bribery is common leads to confusion for foreign visitors. Actually, the rule of law is quite strictly followed in China.

Most legitimate companies behave in a perfectly legal way as they want to do business for the long term and not get into legal trouble, the same as you do in your country.

  1. It's unlikely that you'll meet a situation where bribes are mentioned
  2. Even if you did, you shouldn't work with a company like this, as they're an unreliable business partner

An enforceable business contract will be honoured in China, and so there will be no reason or opportunity to move outside of the law anyway if both parties agree to this.


Do I need to wear formal clothing?

In large companies, or government-run enterprises and departments, you'll usually find that people wear business casual attire.

Trousers, a shirt, and shoes are common for men, and a blouse and pants or skirt for women. A full suit is fairly unusual.

Many modern companies are far more casual, probably more than you'd expect in your own country, so don't be surprised to see people wearing shorts, tee-shirts, and sneakers in the office.

Wear what you would usually wear to a business meeting in your country, namely a suit, but when you have the lay of the land it's probably going to be OK to lose the tie and jacket and relax a little.

Best avoid being too casual initially, unless you're meeting a very young company in fields like design or technology and you know that they have no formal culture. But business casual, such as a golf shirt, slacks, and shoes will often be absolutely fine in China.

Note: Hong Kong is formal in business.


The bottom line

Relax. If you believed everything you read in many articles on Chinese business culture you'd be forgiven for thinking that the way you act, speak, stand, and sit are going to be on trial as soon as you step off of the plane. They're not.

China is really modern now, especially in large cities (which you're likely to be visiting), and people are well-accustomed to foreigners.

Just be yourself, and don't behave in a way that you wouldn't in a business situation in your own country.

In actual fact, you're going to have a great time - the Chinese are friendly to foreigners and often curious about your country, experiences, and thoughts on China, the country itself is vibrant with loads to do and see, and the food is great.


Going to be opening a company and doing business in China?

Read these 4 tips for expat entrepreneurs who are starting a business in China, you won't regret it!

Also read, Don't rely too much on 'China guys' when starting a business in China!


Want more information on etiquette and business culture in China?
It doesn't hurt to be prepared, even if it's not as bad as you may think. Download our free eBook by clicking the button below to request it:

10 step guide to Chinese Business Culture & Etiquette

Topics: Doing Business in China

Bobby Lee

Bobby Lee

Helping make China companies easy since 2007 as a Senior Consultant



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