There is a popular (and populist) expression in the United States, that “I am from the government and I am here to help you.” It is widely known to be sarcastic because so many Americans view the best way for the government to help is to stay out of the way. But when Americans start doing business in China, they start bragging about their connections with Chinese government officials.
Now I am not going to make the silly argument that the role of government officials in China is the same as the role of government officials in the United States, but I will say that wariness of the government ought to be a worldwide phenomenon and it most certainly should extend to Chinese banquets.
In “Drinks with the Party Guys: Toasting delegations and government representatives,” [link no longer exists] DiligenceChina describes how to act around Chinese government functionaries at banquets. The summary is that you should be exceedingly polite and never discuss substance.
Though I am a complete lightweight as a drinker, I consider myself somewhat of a master of foreign business toasting. I have participated in well over a hundtred toasting sessions with Chinese, Koreans, Thais, Turks, Mexicans, Spaniards, French and Russians, and the overall protocol is pretty much the same for all. DiligenceChina speaks generally about handling the Chinese banquet, but only here will you find specific advice to get you through even the longest evening/night.
The key to toasting at Chinese business functions (and business functions pretty much everywhere else as well) is to be both incredibly vague and relentlessly upbeat with every toast. Say basically the same thing (which is nothing) each time, but say it differently, and say it as though you really mean it. Say it as though you have thought it all through and this is the first time you have said it. Show emotion, particularly as the night goes on. Take cues from the assembled as to whether draping your arm over the toastee of the moment is appropriate or not. Do not be the first to get physical.
Your toast should very briefly touch on one of the following each time:
- Bright Future
- Working together for the common good (a/k/a cooperation)
- Mutual benefits (do not get specific)
- Would not have been possible without our good friends
- Future possibilities are unlimited (a/k/a bright future)
- Unity of purpose (a/k/a harmony)
- Would not have been possible without the assistance of ….
- We have learned so much about (pick one from the above) from ….
- I have never gotten to this point, but I would think by now, you could just start all over again.