Know Your Chinese Counterparty: Banquets and Baseline Behaviors

One set of New Year’s celebration is coming to a close, but for those of us involved in China business an even bigger celebration is fast approaching.  Chinese New Year is the central holiday on the Chinese calendar, and anyone meeting with Chinese suppliers, clients or partners had best prepare to “banquet up”.

One of the main functions of relationship-building activities like banquets and KTV evenings is for everyone to relax, get used to one another and establish an idea about what the other side’s real personality is like.   When your Chinese hosts are pouring drinks and making toasts, they are really checking out your strengths and weaknesses, your tendencies and quirks.  This is part of their due diligence – they are determining what kind of person you really are.  You should be doing the same thing.

The Chinese banquet is their turf and they are hosting.  You can tell a lot about their business tactics by the way they conduct themselves at a banquet.  If they load the table with chicken feet, sea cucumber, thousand year eggs, dancing shrimp, 3 squeaks ( ), or other delicacies that Chinese know give westerners trouble, then you can surmise that they plan on pressing their advantage to the fullest every chance they get.  If your counterparts reserve a famous restaurant that serves fine traditional local food but they go easy on the booze and consult with you on menu items, then these are probably people who know what they are doing and are sincere about doing business with you.

Watch the order of the toasting.  The person who toasts first is probably a handler or a junior manager.  When there’s a lull in the conversation or an awkward patch, he’s going to smooth it over with a toast.  It is unlikely that he is the true decision-maker, though he is probably going to be an important contact and facilitator.   (Note on Chinese toasts:  Ganbei translates as “dry glass”, not “cheers”.  You are supposed to empty your glass – and everyone else at the table has to do the same.  Among old school Chinese, it is taken seriously.  Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, and pay attention when they do.  You don’t want to embarrass yourself by sipping when everyone else is draining their glasses.)

The big boss will toast you directly when he is comfortable.  He may go multiple times in fairly rapid succession.  His drink of choice is usually Moutai – a very expensive, super strong variety of white liquor, or baijiu.  To westerners it tastes like lighter fluid mixed with industrial solvent, but they are as attached and proud of it as you are to your Maker’s Mark or Johnny Walker.  Don’t disparage or insult it.  You will look bad if you don’t throw back a couple of shots with the boss.  Good-natured partners with international experience will laugh it off if you can’t stomach the stuff and allow you to substitute beer or even red wine.  The guys who get offended or force you to drink in spite of your objections might prove to be equally obstinate when it comes to business, so take note.   Also be aware that they are taking your measure the whole time.  Be friendly, polite and cheerful, no matter how difficult it may be.

Outside of Shanghai it is still considered absolutely hilarious to get the foreign guy completely smashed – and lots of people doing big business in Shanghai are from out of town.  It is all good-natured fun, and you don’t have to worry about embarrassing yourself or others.  (Alcohol poisoning, on the other hand, is a threat.)  They are consuming almost as much as you are, and everyone is expected to kick back and enjoy himself.  The point, however, is that although banquets and dinner parties are business events, they are probably not the place to fine-tune numbers, rates or contracts.  You can talk about deals in general terms – but bear in mind that things might start getting messy an hour or so into the party.  Aggressive partners have been known to hold foreigners to promises made under the influence, but that’s probably a good indicator that you should be finding other counterparties.

Non-smokers be warned.  You will be offered cigarettes.  This shouldn’t be a big problem in Shanghai anymore, but you’ll almost certainly run into this practice in the smaller cities – particularly west and north.  Turning down a smoke is an insult akin to refusing a toast.  As an ex-smoker who gets awful hangovers when I smoke and drink, I feel your pain – literally.  Here’s what you do:  Take the cigarette hold it up and say thanks, and then say “I’ll smoke it later”.  Put it down on the table in front of you or behind your ear “so you won’t forget to smoke it”.  That works about 35% of the time.  You may have to let the guy light it, and then you’ll pantomime smoking it for a few minutes until you can dispose of it.  The lesson here is twofold. 1) These are not sophisticated, international people, but you probably knew that already.  Experienced Chinese know not to force cigarettes on Westerners.  2)  If your host makes you do something you are clearly not comfortable doing – particularly if it happens several times – then this is a snapshot of his personality.  These folks are not going to be flexible or easy to work with in the future.

Women drink, especially in Beijing.  You can forget about lite beer or other girly drinks.  You are going to throw back Moutai, or whatever rocket fuel is the local choice.  Two pieces of advice.  First, don’t hesitate on the first round.  It will make you a target of convenience for the rest of the night.  Second, keep your empty glass close to you, or they will continually refill it.  Woman are often given the option of switching to beer or red wine (yes—you drink shots of red wine in China) later in the evening, but you should be prepared to drink at least a glass or two of the hard stuff.  You might be able to compromise with “yellow wine” (huang jiu) – a much milder form of local booze that is closer to saki.  Again, you will learn a lot about working with these people in the future by the tone they use when making you drink.  If they are easy going and polite at the banquet, they will probably be reasonable as partners.  If they are bullying and aggressive then there’s a good chance they will exploit their local advantage later as well.

A note about KTV’s.  In mainland China you may find yourself at fancy KTV after dinner.  Some of the new places in Shanghai are enormous palaces with doormen, lines of female greeters, fountains, statues and all manner of glitz.  You will be escorted into a private room that looks like it might have been decorated by Hugh Hefner himself.  Sit down and get comfortable.  A long, involved negotiation with a female manager-type will take place, but don’t worry – they are just arranging the drinks and food.  The next step is difficult for some. An attendant will take a perfectly innocent bottle of 12 year old Glen Fiddich and dump it into big pitcher with pints of sugary ice tea.  Try not to scream or whimper.  Trust me – it doesn’t go over well.

Now the girls enter the picture.  A line of 8 – 12 girls is brought in and you are expected to choose one.  For some westerners, this is awkward and uncomfortable.  For others, it is a dream come true.  They will usually give you (or the highest ranking member of your group) first choice.  Note that nothing sexual is going to happen in the room, and you don’t have to worry about committing adultery, contracting disease or waking up married.  (This applies to KTVs in Mainland China.  In Taiwan, they can be much more … interactive.)  At the end of the evening the girls will be tipped by either you or your host (I think around rmb 300 is normal).  That should be the only cash that changes hands within the confines of the establishment.   The only thing you have to worry about is the drinking games.  Be a good sport, but pace yourself.  It’s likely to be a long evening.

The main take-away is that Chinese business people use social events to vet potential partners, build relationships and perform due diligence.  Many westerners treat banquets as an awkward chore or an obstacle that must be overcome before business can start.  To the Chinese side, this is the business and the negotiation has already started.  Remember that they are checking you out, so conduct yourself accordingly.  Be open-minded, friendly and respectful – even though things may get a little whacky at times.  You should also take advantage of this opportunity to observe and evaluate your new partner, supplier or client.  You are getting a snapshot of their true personality, so don’t ignore your instincts or observations.


Xin nian kui le.  Happy New Year.


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