The Chinapology

The simple bureaucratic maneuver that undoes American managers in China.

Tim Cook  does it – but Eric Schmidt doesn’t. Li Gang  had to do it. I’ve done it – a bunch of times.

Early is good. Late is worse than not at all. The best ones are brief, boring and just slightly embarrassing.

I'm Sorry
The ChinApology – a rite of passage for western managers in China

The ChinApology. As an American or Western manager working in China, you may find yourself pressured into saying you are sorry for something that you probably aren’t really sorry for at all. But that’s the point.

It’s about bureaucracy – not honor.

I was recently on a conference call with some American mangers who were worried about a potential conflict with a Chinese partner of theirs. The friction was at the middle levels of each organization, and revolved around some pretty mundane paperwork issues. The Chinese partner was closely aligned with several State Owned Enterprises, and the American side described them as “bureaucratic” several times. When pressed, one American VP revealed that because of a misunderstanding in the company’s US headquarters, the Chinese side had to redo an application for a local approval and issue an invitation letter for two new Western engineers to apply for visas to work in China.

When I suggested that the Americans consider writing an apology letter to help contain the growing conflict, they laughed at me. Not derisive or nasty. Pleasant. Fun. They thought I was making a light-hearted joke, before I offered REAL advice. When I told them I was serious – that in my professional opinion their best option was to nip this thing in the bud before it took on a life of its own, they seemed ready to fire me. They told me they’d get back to me – but something tells me the next time I hear from they will want to figure out why their Chinese partners have stopped responding to calls and emails.

Definition – What does “Chinapology” mean for American managers?

Think of the Chinapology as a controlled display of preventative humility. It’s not an admission of guilt, but rather an acknowledgement that you broke unspoken, sublime rules of social etiquette. It’s tied to giving face, guanxi, harmony, avoiding conflict —all the buzz words.

Remember ChinaSolved’s rule of Chinese Social Customs:
They may not every help you, but if you mess them up they can hurt you.

The goal of a Chinapology

The Chinapology is defense. It’s a blocking move – not a strike. The goal is to make you non-radioactive so that the people who want to do business and ignore the culture stuff can get on with their lives. It’s so your secretary and salesmen don’t have to quit. It’s not about you and another individual person. It’s about your institution and the Chinese people. I’m humble, I’m sincere, and I acknowledge you (China) are important. You are simply demonstrating that you understand the rules of society and don’t consider yourself above them.

Never write anything that can’t be read in public later and elicit anything but amusement.

Understand the limits

The Chinapology extinguishes a fuse – it’s not throwing your body on a live grenade or fighting an inferno. It can defuse a potentially ugly situation, but it doesn’t repair damage. It doesn’t always work – but not doing it almost always fails.

A Good Chinapology is Content-Free
You are apologizing for making a cultural mistake, for offending the Chinese people, for inconveniencing the noble staff, for being rude. You’re not admitting to a crime or making any sort of material confessions. No justification. No explanations. No zingers or observations about who is really to blame or what society should be like. Don’t embarrass yourself, your company or your country. This can be read publically in the US or China and it won’t kill your career or embarrass your family.

Rules of the Chinapology:

  • a) Timing is everything. This is preventative. Defensive. Dragging it out only makes it worse. The optimal time to Chinapologize is just after the potential conflict or scandal becomes real (you don’t want to jump the gun) but before it takes on a life of its own.
  • b) Be quick, dull, and non-memorable. A good Chinapology is brief. It’s a pro-forma indication that you understand the rules and consider yourself to be on the same team.
  • Apologize and shut up.
  • c) No justification. No blame. No mitigating circumstances or innuendo. No snarky, American-lawyer style damage control. No “it’s unfortunate that you feel bad about this situation”
  • d) Make it as drama-free as possible – as unentertaining as you possibly can. You are going to be sincere, but not too sincere. Heartfelt, but not overwrought. Serious but not grim. Americans shouldn’t overdo the humility, or it will keep happening.

Mechanics of the Chinapology
A good Chinapology should be no more than 200 words (yeah- you have to write it out). The general vibe is that you are writing this to the entire Chinese People and that it will be public and kept on file forever. Cover these five points:

  1. Acknowledge that there is a problem. (Your feelings are important.)
  2. We have studied the situation carefully and know how you feel. (We have put in a lot of hard work and sleepless nights on this issue.)
  3. We admit to being insensitive to Chinese people, the residents of XXX town/province, or the hardworking staff. Apologize for ignorance, arrogance, failing to understand, thoughtlessness. NO CONFESSIONS.
  4. We will improve. (List your concessions, new policies, new programs, or other forward-looking resolutions)
  5. We pledge long term commitment and support.

If you follow these steps, your first Chinapology should come off well. Good luck out there.


The text of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s apology to China.

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