Valerie Hoeks – Co-founder, China Inroads
It all started in the year 2000 I was 17 years old and I walked with my backpack through unpaved alleys in the outskirts of Beijing. I saw men cycling with entire closets and fridges on the back. I saw little kids running around half naked playing football, while their parents were trying to sell mushrooms and spinach sitting on the ground.
I saw a butcher behind his stand swatting flies that were trying to sit on his meat. Everybody was smiling, including this guy: literally sitting on his business, trying to sell second-hand computers. Why was I so touched by these Chinese people and their country? Was it the typical smile that covered up a road I didn’t know yet? Or was it the energy I felt when walking through such streets?
The only way to find out was to start learning Chinese and to start communicating with these people to learn more about their world because their world is so different from ours. I mean the way people behave, the way people interact.
Take this for example: (Video) a subway station in China during rush hour. Which one of you has been on a subway in China before? Then, you definitely know that getting on the subway in China is not easy, but getting off a subway in China is nearly impossible. People just use their elbows to squeeze themselves away and don’t give you any space to get out.
So, looking at such examples in combination with the fact that Chinese don’t really express their emotions as much as we do. You might believe that Chinese are tough and cold-hearted people but in fact for Chinese, warm relations are very important. You might even say that Maslow has it wrong. Relations are not in the third level of human needs, they are really a necessity in life. And I believe that we, Westerners, that tend to point our fingers at what happens in China, I believe that we can even learn from the Chinese and how they deal with others; and if we project that on our own behavior I think we can become better people. I even wish that every one of you has the opportunity to fly to China once in their life time, not just to climb the great wall but to really listen to the Chinese to what they have to say.
Why is it that the relationship in China is so important? Still, nowadays, many Chinese are strongly influenced by the thoughts of a man named Confucius. His sayings are really like a Bible to the Chinese. I mean here, in the Western world, the Bible gains less and less support nowadays but in China his sayings are alive and kicking. (Chinese) Yǒupéngzìyuǎnfānglái, bùyìlèhū (English) It’s really a great pleasure to meet friends from afar.
So Confucius’ philosophy emphasizes personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, just sincerity. He champions strong family loyalty, ancestor worship and respect for the elderly. So knowing this, you might understand why relationships are so important in China, and why you need to build relationships in order to become successful. Maybe some of you had that experience in China and then you might have heard of the word Guanxi. Guanxi literally means connections or relationships but actually it’s much more than that.
Guanxi is like how things gets done in China. Yes, Chinese are hesitant to deal with people they have never met and there is a long phase of introduction needed but once you reach the phase of mutual trust, you will find that Chinese are extremely loyal and faithful.
So, why is it that Guanxi is so different from how we know it? I mean there are many characteristics most of them strongly based on the philosophy of Confucius that cause these differences but there are three of them I would like to share with you tonight.
In China, if you want to maintain your relationship there’s one requirement referred to as reciprocal favor. “Rénqíng” in Chinese. If you ask someone for a favor, the favor needs to be returned, eventually. If you fail to repay, this is really seen as something unforgivable in China. So the more you ask from someone, the more you owe them and this is how Guanxi is like a never ending cycle of favors. Let me give you an example: I don’t know about you, but I barely remember the names of the teachers in my primary school. My Chinese colleagues and friends however, they visit their teachers, for tea– who are now in their 70s– for tea every Sunday afternoon, every week, since they graduated. This is for them a way to repay for what they have once received years ago. I love this, I love how the Chinese have this long-term view.
So, where does this need for balance come from? Think of concepts like Yin and Yang and Feng Shui. I mean retailers like IKEA might use such concepts for commercial purposes, but in China these are really important values in life. I once sat with a business partner in his office in Beijing and we were discussing a certain subject but I felt my words didn’t really reach him. So he was just shuffling in his seat and at some point he interrupted me saying: “Valerie, I am sorry but do you mind swapping chairs, I am not comfortable sitting in this angle from the main entrance”. So, in line with this culture, there’s another concept that is very valuable that the Chinese refer to as “harmony”. Hé. Harmony stresses the preference of the smooth running of a society or a group.
So Chinese prefer to await the right moment instead of pushing through a certain request like we sometimes tend to do here. So when you don’t notice it might come across as if Chinese are extremely lazy, waiting until the very last moment to fix things. But that’s not the case. And if you bring your checklist and your deadlines to China and you think that’s going to work, you’ll have difficult times and believe me, I know.
So in 2000, I was travelling through the countryside of China. and back then, people were quite shocked seeing a tall red head passing by. At some point, I even had to help a cycler get back on his feet after hitting a tree while looking at me. So I arrived in Tai Shan, a relatively small town in the South of China and there I met a girl or actually first I walked and I couldn’t find a place to sleep so I was just wondering around and there I met a girl named Chen Wang and she asked me to be my friend and we just sat down the entire afternoon in a park learning each other’s language.
But as time passed by, I felt more and more uncomfortable by the fact that I still didn’t have a place to sleep. So I shared my worry with my new friend, but she just waved aside my question. I tended to ask again and again, but I managed not to and just wait and see what would happen.
So, after a while I just obediently followed her for a long walk and the two hour best drive over unpaved roads, sometimes stopped by 20 donkeys trying to cross the road. So, eventually, we arrived at a very out-dated school building. And on the third floor, there was a room, the size of my kitchen, filled with six bunk beds offering space for 12 girls to sleep, to live and to study.
So I spent a few days and nights with my Chinese peers learning about their student lives and their environment and I tell you it was so much more interesting than a boring hotel. So, I really believe if we’d manage to sometimes put our impatience aside and really see and wait what would come across and if you are open to the approach of Chinese then much more beautiful things come to you.
So, the last characteristic that is probably difficult for us to understand is the fact that for Chinese, for many Chinese, making a mistake in public is one of the most humiliating things in life. Face, reputation, “miànzi” in Chinese really determines your position in a social network. So face depends on how attractive you are, how many friends you have, the skills you have, the connections you have, how much money you have. Face can be earned but face can also be lost.
So, in the day-to-day lives of Chinese face plays a crucial role. To give you an example, a Dutch client of us signed a contract with their Chinese local partner, Mr Fan, who’s also a good friend of ours and every body was happy because of long negociations after a few days and then the Dutch client left to go back home. One day, after the Dutch client flew home, Mr Fan turned to us, his face in terror, “One of the investors has stepped out.” And, of course, it would have meant a show stopper for the cooperation. But to be honest we were really happy that Mr Fan turned to us instead of directly contacting the Dutch client, because naturally the Dutch client would have become very angry, causing Mr Fan to lose his face, ruining the long-term relationship.
Now we had the opportunity to together find a solution, close the gap by finding another investor and doing this, we saved Mr Fan’s face and the business of our client. So, also here, I feel that if we managed to look at a certain situation from different angles, I believe it would positively benefit our business accomplishments. So, I have a picture this picture, largely projected on my wall in our office in Amsterdam because this man reminds me of the first time I set foot on Chinese soil and he reminds me of all the lessons that I have learnt over the years. To have a long-term view, to be patient, to be open and to be a good listener. So, I hope tonight I inspired you to also consider your own approach and I welcome you to fly with me to China to learn from the Chinese.