The Insider’s Guide to Succeeding in China

It seems like China is at the top of every business person’s list these days. It’s large, fast growing and the ever expanding middle class has opened up many opportunities. But China, the most populous and third largest country with a history of around 5,000 years isn’t an easy place to crack. Succeeding in China is tough, unless of course you take the sound advice of Business Leader and China Expert, Earl Marek.

China is so large and diverse it feels like its the perfect market. But it’s borders are littered with the tombstones of business leaders who arrived unprepared.

Manage Your Expectations

Unlike in the West, slow and steady gets business done, eventually.  It takes time for potential counterparties and partners to get to know and trust you. Most Westerners don’t have the necessary Patience for this. The key positive here is that the longer it takes, the stronger the social bond and the greater the potential for a win-win business relationship.

Learn A Few Key Phrases

Nothing shows Respect for another culture more than making the effort to try and communicate in their language – and I emphasize ‘try.’ The effort is greatly appreciated and remembered.

A few basic phrases will take you far in China 

hello – ni hao / goodbye – zai jian / thank you – xie xie,
it was very nice to meet you – hen gao xing ren shi ni / long time no see – hao jiu bu jian
I also recommend iTranslate for iPhones and Baidu Translate for android devices to hear the proper pronunciation of these phrases. I have my own phonetic system to remember these and I encourage everyone to do the same. The Chinese shown here is Hanyu Pinyin often abbreviated to pinyin which is the official romanization system for the standard Chinese characters. The beauty of this language is that everything is a combination of one-syllable words, and there are no gender or time variations.


Succeeding in China means getting to know your customers or colleagues quite well. Having lunch and especially dinner together is a major building block in a business relationship. Instead of a main course, several different dishes are served – and your host will want you to try everything, which makes them happy, so be aware that the reverse is (unfortunately) true. This means you have to be exceedingly diplomatic in turning down any sampling you know or feel is definitely not for you! The Chinese food you eat in North America is not the same as you will find in China. You can always gravitate to the many vegetable dishes and fish to be conservative. Watch out for the popular white liquor known as Baijiu, distilled from sorghum and rice. It is strong and packs quite a punch – I ask for beer (yi ping pi jiu) or red wine if available (qing [please] yi bei hong jiu [one glass red wine]).
Even a stronger element in building a business relationship than sharing a meal, is socializing in various out-of-office activities. Feel honored if you are asked to join your business contacts hiking, playing cards, or going to a karaoke bar, or cultural site. The Chinese love music as much or more than anyone, and is a favorite interest whether it’s a topic of conversation or an activity (karaoke). I have a music background and tend to be granted a ‘status upgrade’ in their eyes! 

Gifts and Business Cards 

You don’t just hand a new contact your business card – you ‘present’ it!  Hold your card in both hands as you give it to the person with the information facing them so they can read your title. Bowing slightly when you do this will be appreciated and reciprocated.  When a Chinese businessman visits you on your home turf, he brings a gift, and so it is recommended you do the same when visiting them in their country. A gift that is representative of your country, or business, is a safe bet and a great way to help you down the path to succeeding in China.

About the Author

Earl Marek continues to build successful international private equity experience after holding investment management and officer positions in several North American blue chip financial institutions over a 30 year career. He led the multi-million dollar acquisition of a leading North American environmental solutions company by a major Chinese wastewater and reclamation corporation, taking an initial discussion to closing in 6 months, including Chinese government approvals. He also serves as Senior Vice President for GreenStreme an organic fertilizer derived from fresh fish processing using a patented cold hydrolysis technology.