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How to survive China’s business environment: drink and smoke a lot, get divorced, and don’t drop your chopsticks

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There was a time when China was ranked one of the toughest of the ‘hardship’ destinations for expats, and foreign workers could be expected to be compensated handsomely for foregoing their standards of living and familiar working environment.

Increasingly, however, the People’s Republic is seen as less of a tough sell to the global workforce – the country has liberalised and modernised in many areas. In addition, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been eradicated in the world’s major financial hubs and this has forced bankers to consider options previously not on their radars.

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That said, the Xpatulator – a website measuring the relative quality of living in each country, and the level of difficulty  experienced in adapting to each location – still ranks China a ‘3’ –  “High degree of hardship. Expatriates typically paid a 30% salary premium.”

The scale only goes up to 4, which is deemed an extreme hardship meriting a 40% premium. Afghanistan, not unexpectedly, is a 4. At the other end of the scale is the UK, which ranks a 1, and expats can only expect a 10% bump in salaries to compensate for living in a foreign country.

So living and working in China can still pose a major challenge to foreign finance workers. A recent survey by German intercultural training company Inter Culture Capital has tough advice for new arrivals in China’s big cities: Learn to drink a lot of alcohol, get a divorce, and start smoking to get used to the air quality.

China’s main cities are notoriously polluted; doing business can involve many social events fuelled by potent Chinese baijiu liquor and plenty of ‘gan bei’ (toasting); and long hours away from home drinking and smoking can test any relationship.

While it’s always good to be prepared, becoming a heavy drinking and smoking divorcee might be taking loyalty to the company a tad far.

Sam Lee-Bapty, Director, Beijing & Northern China at Michael Page in Beijing has less extreme advice: Success in adapting to the Chinese workplace depends on timely awareness of cultural differences and managed expectations, he says.

“It’s 100% about preparation,” he says. “Those moving to China need to understand that life here is different – it can be a very positive difference, but Beijing is not a typical expat’s gravy train.”

Those who fail in China are sometimes those who make either too little effort to adapt, or try to do too much too quickly.

“You need to be open-minded, thick-skinned and persistent,” he says.

Foreign finance workers must expect significant differences in both the workplace and the regulatory environment, says Lily Liu, the firm’s Banking & Financial Services Manager.

“Expatriates will need to spend a lot of time being trained in local regulations (and be prepared for the fact that) they change more frequently than elsewhere in the world,” she says.

They will also have to adapt to a more rigid hierarchy that may be hard to swallow. One expat banker working reporting to a Chinese national was taken aback when an idea he had proposed to his boss was presented as the manager’s own idea during a meeting.

Understanding communication subtleties is also essential. According to US company Steelcase, a Michigan-based office furniture designer, communication in the Chinese workplace can be fraught with misunderstandings for foreigners who don’t understand China’s ‘high-context’ culture, which means that language alone is not enough to discern meaning.

The context in which communication takes place – including body language, eye contact and even seating arrangements – need to be taken into account.

And the pitfalls for foreigners are many. Website cyborlink.com has a survival kit for expats to help them navigate the very sensitive and intricate behaviours required.

Don’t drop your chopsticks, for instance, when at dinner with a business associate. It is considered bad luck. This can pose an enormous coordination challenge for even a sober expat, let alone one who has just gone several rounds with the gan beis.

Pointing with fingers is frowned upon – the entire hand must be used, and using large expressive gestures when talking is a no-no.

“When communicating, you need to be incredibly sensitive to the environment around you, whether you speak Mandarin or not,” says Lee-Bapty. “Things that are considered acceptable in the West may be taboo in China. It takes time to learn how to communicate, and to understand other’s opinions.”

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