Chinese Tactics: The Balance of Power

    When the power shifts in a Chinese relationship, you’d better know it.

Introducing, the Balance of Power Shift, or BOPS.

Part I: What’s the Balance of Power Shift?
Part II: BOPS and tactics.
Part III: BOPS and counter-tactics

In every Chinese deal a little power must shift. There will come a time when the prospective supplier who was kissing your assets yesterday starts acting surly and aloof. Or that busy, cell phone guy suddenly has all the time in the world for you. What’s going on – Balance of Power Shift. BOPS.

Chinese deals can have a lot of them, but they almost always have at least one. This is when the Westerner suddenly outlives his usefulness – or the Chinese realizes that the Lai Wai can do this just fine on his own from now on. One way or another your partner feels that the relative power of the relationship has changed, and now it’s your problem. The first rule is that you can’t ‘opt-out’ of the pettier and dumber aspects of the culture just because you think they are petty and dumb. Your Chinese counter-party has a propensity to get fussy about power games and deep strategy. And because it is part of their world, now it is part of your world. Got that?

Post-BOPS behavior patterns:
Behaviors change rapidly, and experienced negotiators know what the new signals mean. You should too.

After the Western side wires the funds, one of three things will happen.

    •One is that everything stays 100% on track as both sides worry about execution and expansion in a balanced, systematic and logical manner. It usually doesn’t.
    • Sometimes the Chinese will feel that they have been dealt a losing hand. Either it looks like they will make less money or that you will make more than optimistic estimates led them to believe. This is where the quality problems, the unfinished projects and the unanswered phone calls are born.
    • The third option is that the Chinese side feels it has the advantage. That’s when you have outlived your usefulness. This is the signal for the start of some potentially aggressive behavior, like the kind of IP theft where they start running a competing business with your plan, product & designs.

China Deal BOP: Which way is it moving?

What triggers a power shift?
The BOPS – the Balance of Power Shift. It can be caused by something external to the negotiation or something internal – but suddenly your Chinese counterpart feels either stronger or weaker than he did yesterday – relative to YOU.

    • Maybe you moved money into the partnership – in which case you are weaker. Maybe you signed a deal with a different Chinese firm – in which case you are stronger. If you are making more – or he is making less – it may be causing resentment which can force a BOPS earlier.
    • You are supposed to be the brawn, they are the brains. Even though your brawn was cash, technology, designs and know-how – they were the brains of China. Each day the balance is shifting. As you transfer more money, know-how, training and IP to the circle, their power grows. As you learn more about China & the industry and build up your network, your power grows.
    • In China, your success can suddenly trigger a BOPS against you – as your Chinese counter-parties decide that you are exploiting them and that they should A) charge more and B) find other deals that don’t include you.

Why does it occur?
They either think you were screwing them (your fault or not) or think they can do better by screwing you. Either way, it’s a decision – not a rule – and it’s governed by the Chinese notion that there is always another opportunity just around the corner. Another factor is that Chinese negotiators consider education about your operation and industry to be an intangible but valuable asset. The knowledge they’ve gained is part of their payout. It usually declines steeply. By the time they have the upfront money, they are done.

In other words, your cooperative structure may be eroding at the base even as it looks the most successful. While you are building and struggling, your Chinese counter-party remains loyal because he is still putting the pieces together. But once you have succeeded with your first order or preliminary operation, then your usefulness as a teacher is exhausted. They have learned it all, and can probably do better on their own in China than in helping YOU prop up your fat margins.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the BOPS, but it seems to be closely connected to how low-maintenance the relationship is, and what the earnings potential looks like. If the payout is level or falling, look for the Chinese side to decide that the grass is greener and the BATNA higher on the other side. At that point, you need them a lot more than they need you – hence the BOPS.

Time & Risk
Westerners believe that the safest course of action is to secure a stable base of operations and grow from there. The Chinese feel that the smart businessman acts quickly when an opportunity appears – and is always ready to move on to the next one. Both sides, pursuing a risk-reduction strategy, will undermine the partnership. It is important to put aside your own preconceptions about what constitutes long term benefit, best practices and common sense.

Next: BOPS II – How it affects tactics

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