Negotiating in China: Secrets of Success

I’ve been to two meetings with major, MAJOR international institutions in the last few weeks where pretty much the same message was delivered.

• We’ve just reached a huge agreement with the Chinese government.
• We have never been more successful, happy or optimistic about our future in China or our relationship with the Chinese people.
• We have never been better disposed towards the Chinese government.
• Don’t tell anyone.

In spite of public signing ceremonies including photographers, reporters, dignitaries and permanent commemorative wall plaques – the Western institutions are instructed to treat the agreement as a state secret. This sounds much odder to those outside of China than to those that have been doing deals here for a while.

China celebrates the signing but hides the cooperation. There are three main reasons for this:

First, China likes to manage the time horizon of the commitment. Most of these deals are not explicitly open-ended – nor do they stipulate a meaningful expiration. This is emblematic of Chinese use of time as a negotiation factor. They will open the door you want them to, but leave themselves the option to close that door at a time of their own choosing. This gives China tremendous leverage later, and makes sure that the relationship maintains proper harmonious characteristics throughout.

Another cause for the seemingly irrational attitude towards publicly acknowledging agreements is that China’s internal power structure is complex, competitive and finely balanced. Westerners tend to view the Chinese bureaucracy as a single entity. Chinese negotiators see the bureaucracy as a community – or collection of clans. The ministry or bureau that ultimately sent a representative to the signing ceremony may have had to over-rule, outmaneuver or horse-trade with a dozen other bureaucratic competitors. One reason Chinese negotiators are slow to embrace the concept of Win-Win negotiation is that the math isn’t as simple here. It’s more like Win-Win-Lose. You and your counter-party may both benefit, but somewhere there is a third actor that has lost out to your Chinese counter-part. That person or group isn’t known to you – but is all too familiar to they guy you are being photographed with.

Finally, your big agreement may in fact be a small step towards a significant policy evolution. Chinese negotiators are known to use individual deals as trial balloon or test cases – usually without the Western counter-party’s knowledge. They will use this case to nudge a door open just a bit and see what happens. A big splash for you, this deal was just the Chinese side dipping a toe in the water. If you start making loud noise about the great deal you signed it may pre-empt a much bigger shift that is far deeper and broader than your contract.

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