This article was contributed by my friend, Chuck, who worked in China for three years.
Chuck and I began to focus on international business and economics while studying at UMSL. I was leaning toward Latin America because I could already speak Spanish, I loved the culture, and I felt Latin America was just as much an emerging market as Asia or Eastern Europe. Chuck, on the other hand, looked at the best growth prospects and nothing else. He chose China.
Here’s an email Chuck sent during his last year there:
Moving to China is the second biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life – behind joining the army. For the longest, my impression was that they were shy, innocent, hardworking people who were opening up their economy and would rightly rule the world in some sort of “the meek shall inherit the earth” scenario. Oh God was I ever wrong. It is all just a carefully crafted “face” upon a rotten interior.
Here’s his article.
Watching the sausage get made: an inside look at business in China
After living in China for three years, most of it working for a foreign consulting firm in Beijing, I took a marketing spot with a Chinese manufacturer and trading company in a “tier three” city. I had ideas of grandeur going in. I was going to break into new markets, bridge cultures, and make a name for the company internationally. With this rare opportunity I’d become the poster child of international business and give speeches at MIT.
That didn’t happen.
But I learned a lot. For example, China’s business world is a circus unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. Here are some takeaways.
Few people at a Chinese company actually know anything.
Textbooks on Chinese culture contrast the Chinese “holistic” way of thinking versus the Western “analytic” style. I haven’t figured out what “holistic” thinking means, but I know I have zero respect for it.
My employer was absolutely clueless as to the top market for its flagship product, a heavy agricultural machine that sells for several thousand dollars. Of course they told me the top market was the United States, because “it’s big.” In less than a day’s research I learned that the largest individual importers were Russia and Brazil.
On this point I actually effected change in the company. Six months later a representative office was opened in Russia, and a few Russian speakers were hired as well as a Chilean (the closest thing they could get to a Brazilian).
I was less successful on other things, like Google Ads. One of the company’s products was mosquito nets. The sales peon focused most of his online efforts on Uganda. I asked why he chose this particular market. “Uganda is in Africa, and Africa has a lot of mosquitoes.” He could have made a worse choice I guess, but did he consider internet connectivity? Or that the average web surfer is looking to buy one mosquito net, not 10,000 per our minimum order quantity? No.
The company didn’t subscribe to a single trade magazine and, so far as I could tell, nobody read industry news. At trade shows most Chinese companies send junior employees to give “face” to their local or provincial governments in exchange for favorable treatment. Blatant ignorance at Chinese companies, however, may be ideal considering my second point.
Copying is ABSOLUTELY RAMPANT.
Nobody is trusted. Little information is shared, either vertically or laterally. The media hype about problems with intellectual property rights in China doesn’t even scratch the surface. The copying is absolutely shameless.
Where I worked, salesmen didn’t share information with other salesmen because they feared their lead would be taken. Lower level employees weren’t even allowed to have cell phone numbers on their business cards. This was to prevent them from usurping management and working out special deals with the factory and customers.
The most closely guarded secrets of any Chinese manufacturer are its product specs. My informational sessions about the company’s machinery seemed like they were taken from Wikipedia. My inquiries, as part of a first step to try and differentiate the product from others in the market, went nowhere. Questions about the composition of the steel and gearing ratios were deflected at first. I persisted and was told, “It’s a secret.”
Engineers were not hired based on competence, but whether they could be trusted. Factory hands were overstaffed and given narrow roles to keep them from knowing too much. Salesmen were told as little as possible about the machines. The less employees know at a Chinese company, the less capable they are of defecting and setting up shop themselves.
Because this is exactly what can be seen all over China, in every industry, particularly those with less state involvement and fewer barriers to entry. At least a dozen factories were selling the exact same agricultural machinery as ours – down to the color. The “outbreak monkey” of the technology probably copied an outdated model of one of the European majors in Shanghai. From there the copying spread to Zhejiang and beyond. Our factory manufactured a third-generation copy. When there were shortfalls in production, the difference was made up by ordering machines from a Zhejiang company. Why not? It’s the same thing anyway.
Chinese manufacturers with unique technology absolutely will not ship within the country. At one point my boss spotted a factory using German technology in Guangdong. His plan of action: COPY. An American colleague and I were to pose as a U.S. tool company looking to diversify. We were sent to the factory with fake business cards to initiate a transaction for the machines, which would then be redirected to our factory for reverse engineering.
Our boss was right – it was German technology. Our contact at the factory, Martin Zhang, was actually a German engineer using his wife’s surname. He had a couple dozen workers cranking out first-rate machines for export. His Chinese wife helped with management and administrative duties.
After the factory tour, guilt set in. My American colleague summarized it best: “You can’t send Americans to do the work of Chinese assholes.” We came clean to the German and didn’t get a deal.
Some Chinese companies won’t allow prospective customers inside the factory. An American colleague visited a manufacturer of motion-sensor operated levers in Tianjin, the only known Chinese company with the technology. Its factory was locked down like Fort Knox. He got no further than the security gate. He was whisked away on a city tour and treated to an extravagant lunch. “Trust us,” he was assured. Then they had the audacity to propose a huge upfront premium for the sample shipment.
Sometimes the extent of the copying caught me by surprise. Once a Chinese manager dropped a 50-page document on my desk and asked, “What is this?” It had the bauhinia flower symbol of Hong Kong in its letterhead, thus was in English. Beneath that: ‘COURT SUMMONS‘. Our company’s Hong Kong entity was being sued by a Japanese novelty watchmaker for copying its designs. “Do they have a case?” the manager asked.
“Well, considering our website says ‘We sell the same watches as [Japanese company X] but at half the price’, yeah I’d say they have a smoking gun.”
A lawyer was called in. His suggestion: do nothing. He explained that copying was so pervasive we were probably one of many Chinese companies being sued simultaneously by the Japanese watchmaker. They were just hoping one or two would come through with a payout. Our entity in Hong Kong was just a shell company, a registered address with a bank account. In the end, the money in the account was transferred back to the mainland and the court summons was ignored.
Another surprise occurred after the ex-factory head was moved to the desk behind mine. The guy was a dunce but he had connections with the right people, getting a $300,000 government grant for a new factory. After an order scheduled for delivery in one month to the United States took over eight months under his management, he was “promoted” to an office job and given a fancy title (i.e. they got him as far away from the factory as possible). One day he called me to his desk, absolutely jubilant. “Look at this,” he said pointing to a machine on a European company’s website. “We can copy this!” But to his disappointment, two other Chinese companies had already copied it and put photos on their websites. His new job was to spend all day looking for new things to copy.
Once he called me over to look at the oil press of a Dutch company. Through my personal email I informed the Dutch company that they should patent their design in China before being copied, but I never got a response. Our company had an imitation on the market within a month.
Even logos are copied. At the Canton Fair, I noticed our logo was ripped off from a state-owned company. Even more embarrassing was that their booth was only three spots down from ours – shameless.
The cornerstone of Chinese business strategy: spite.
In a typical meeting at a Western company, the boss might talk about the status of current projects, recent developments in the market, or key future events. In meetings with my Chinese employer, the boss would carry on endlessly about competitors and how he wanted to see them destroyed. On an overhead projector, he’d search Google for product-related keywords. Then the spite: “This is our competitor, and this is our competitor…” (‘competitor’ always mispronounced “com-pet-it-tate-or”) whenever spotting the website of another in our industry. This would carry on until he had sufficiently vented.
At one point there was a company in the U.K. that put an article on its website that said disparaging things about the quality of machines made in China – that the designs are outdated, that certain adjustments can’t be made, that the gears are intended for use in automobiles and tend to break, etc. All of which were true. No specific companies were mentioned.
My boss wanted revenge. He registered a company in London. A fictitious brand was launched, based in London, complete with several websites and a biweekly newsletter written by “Alistair Dalrymple” (me). The U.K. competitor’s signature e-book was copied and sold at an undercut price.
For some reason it didn’t occur to my boss that machines can’t be purchased from fictional people at nonexistent companies. People would call the office, Chinese phone number and all, wanting to talk with Alistair Dalrymple. Our secretaries didn’t know about my fictional pen name, so they told callers there was no Alistair Dalrymple at the company. I finally took the liberty of killing off Alistair after the London riots, when someone in Slovakia sent an email hoping Mr. Dalrymple was safe.
Fraud and spamming
The company managed several fictitious brands. For its flagship product there were four. Selling under multiple fake brands served two purposes:
- It crowds out competitors, as a foreign buyer looking to get a handful of quotes from Chinese companies might unknowingly contact the same company multiple times.
- When one “brand” receives a reputation for poor quality, not honoring contracts, etc., others remain unharmed – a diversification strategy of sorts. It all comes from the same factory. I once saw a LED light manufacturer that operated under 20 brand names.
Making things worse for the prospective foreign buyer is that each brand might operate through multiple websites. Thus competitors could be displaced as much as possible from the first pages of Google’s search results.
Our company had as many people building websites and working on search engine optimization as factory workers. These English majors started at RMB 900 ($150) per month. For the highest rankings in Google, competitors’ top keywords were poached using a special software. It didn’t matter that these keywords taken from Chinese competitors were often in Chinglish (‘equipments’). I could not edit these because, in keeping with the spite theme, appealing to customers is secondary to attacking competitors. The keywords were then incorporated into headings and website text. Another software was used to alter text just enough to bait the Google system into thinking it was unique enough to be used on multiple websites (spinning).
Then there was link building, for which our company employed ten people. Our best link builder could create over 1,000 per day. If you maintain a blog, chances are your comments section has been hit by one of our spammers.
At one point I approached the boss about my own conception of branding: that we sell our agricultural machinery under one brand, through one website, and do our best to keep quality in check so as to keep a good reputation. A couple weeks later at a meeting, after railing competitors for a good thirty minutes, the boss announced a new marketing strategy. Each brand would be reduced to three websites: one for “advertising,” one for “promotions of our products,” and one for “branding.”
It is not a language barrier; it is an everything barrier.
A salesman once asked me to edit an email. She had received a product inquiry that asked for specifics about price, output, and lead time. There wasn’t a single number in her response. I took it back to her. “I couldn’t help but notice that you didn’t answer any of the questions.”
Her reply: “Yes, it is good to be diplomatic.”
Me: “Uh, okay. But you realize that he is just going to send another email asking the exact same thing. You are just wasting time.”
She looked at me as if I was stupid. “This is the Chinese way,” she told me.
I didn’t edit it. Instead, I put it in perfect English so the guy would know he’s being jerked around. With Chinglish he might assume it’s just a misunderstanding. Chinese nonsense does not work in native English.
Sometimes I’d see prospective customers, obviously frustrated, send a series of questions in “Please check ‘yes’ or ‘no'” format, or even create fill-in-the-blank forms in an attempt to make direct answers painfully simple. They’d still get the runaround.
It’s not that my Chinese colleagues didn’t understand. They studied English. They know that ‘kg’ and ‘kilograms’ mean the same thing. But I just couldn’t change their minds. And the company’s sale per inquiry – HOT LEADS – never got above a dismal 0.7 percent.
Toward the end of my stint I could almost understand why. Swindling is so prevalent in China that everyone is on the defensive. Every inquiry was assumed to be a competitor attempting to get price information or product specifications for undercutting or copying, respectively. Every prospective African and Indian client who wanted to see the factory was assumed to be using the opportunity for an invitation letter to get a visa, and were endlessly scrutinized.
I never could understand the blatant dishonesty. An inquiry once came in from the U.S. for an engineering project related to our agricultural machinery. One of the questions asked was if we had previously completed any U.S. projects. A mid-level manager came in and asked how he should respond. “Well, how many projects have we completed in the U.S.?” I asked.
Me: “That. That’s what you tell him.” For extra points you can say that you have recently hired Americans to help enter the U.S. market. How hard is that?
The worst instance was with an Iranian steel contract worth a few million dollars. The year prior it was agreed that if the Iranian company sold a certain amount of steel, they would become our sole distributor in the country. They made their numbers, but our company didn’t want to keep its end of the agreement. I was asked to give advice for an email explaining that we would renege on the contract, but that we still wanted them to sell steel for us.
The company’s business-to-customer toy company in Guangzhou was kicked off of Amazon.com. We were notified by Amazon via email. The charges:
- Selling faulty products.
- Failure to respond to customer inquiries.
- Late shipments.
- Providing no recourse for wronged customers.
The branch’s boss came to me to smooth things over with Amazon. “What can we do to get back on?” he asked.
Me: “You should figure out how to engage in honest business.”
Less than a month later an account was registered under a different name and he was back at it.
A Dutch consultant, a veteran in China, told me this company was the best he had ever seen. I can’t imagine the worst. Some people scorn Western companies who outsource their operations to China. I think they deserve a medal. How they can consistently get anything of value out of this country is beyond me.
They love volume because only volume will get their cost down and enable them to put their competitor out of business. Gross Margin is secondary.
They will sell anybody and everybody, even if he is right down the street from you. Selective distribution means nothing to them.
They drop their price more for overseas Chinese clients because those guys grind harder so they can do more volume and put you out of business.
The entire system is based on everybody trying to put everybody else out of business.
Beautiful. I couldn’t stop laughing, though I’d imagine your experience was more horrific than anything else.
4 years in China. This was hilarious to read. Spot on.
Plus ca change. A book, FORGOTTEN KINGDOM*, by Peter Gouillart** about life in China when the challenge of Mao was taking force but the Nationalists still held the country.
He was engaged as a westerner to help build industrial and agricultural cooperatives around the (then) remote city of Likiang now, if I calculate properly, a modern industrial powerhouse of automobile production with a tunnelled motorway providing access in two directions to the rest of the nation whereas at the time of the book there were only mule tracks and the promise of encounters with extorting bandits etc.
Anyway, he was “dropped in” probably as a box ticking exercise because the authorities never provided any sort of support and seemingly was not just doomed but programmed to fail. All this documented in the book; however, he did manage to start, resource, and run several cooperatives in incredibly difficult terrain (Yangtse Gorges) and with all sorts of indigenous territories and mentalities to encounter, understand, and engage.
My take on this, never mind the eventual failure of all such exercises with the “change of government” that took China, is that (nutshell) it was not seen as a good idea that a westerner (white devil) could achieve anything that the Han could not. Mr Gouillart’s successes were achieved partly or mostly because of “being a man with good heart” which I guess we could equate with the term empathy; and also from his unique cultural background. (TLDR – see the book for more).
I think that some aspects of life in Andean Latin America would find a distinctive echo in this story.
It’s possible that your correspondent is from the sample of westerners who are always going to be disappointed in China. For another view the two books by Peter (brother of Ian) Fleming, One’s Company and News from Tartary, written in a slightly earlier era, might provide another view of the mental chasm between “us” and “them”, a chasm which to my mind still exists.
Better to understand that these chasms exist than to pretend everyone speaks the same mental language?
*London 1957 Readers Union – John Murray
**Peter Gouillart, a Western Educated Russian who escaped with his mother during the Revolution