Win-Win Negotiating in China

Every time I go to China, I come back planning to write an excoriating post on the place. I mean, let’s face it, it is one of the (if not the) most exasperating places on earth. I found it even more exasperating this last time because before hitting China, I spent two and a half weeks in Vietnam (mostly Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi) and once again was shocked at how a country like Vietnam (which is considerably poorer than the places I tend to go in China) can, at least on most levels, appear to have its act so much more together than China.

Let’s take service for example. I never cease to be amazed at the downright horrible service in China, and that includes at so-called five star hotels. Some examples from this last trip:

  • At breakfast one morning, I was waiting as an employee was loading massive amounts of French toast. I wondered to myself whether he had seen me and knew I was waiting or whether he simply did not know I was there. He then looked right at me and continued loading the French toast, forcing me — the paying guest — to continue to wait. This at a five star hotel in Shanghai.
  • Toward the end of my stay in Shanghai, I got sick and I needed to extend my stay two times. Both times I called down to the front desk in the morning and was told my stay would be extended at the same rate and both times at around 4:30 that same day I would receive a phone call pretty much giving me three minutes to get the hell out of the hotel or the police will be called. I should further note that for at least five years I have been the highest level frequent stay member at this particular Western hotel chain.
  • At a Beijing five star hotel, two days in a row for breakfast I was seated where someone else had already been seated. One of those days, I was re-seated, got my food, then got up for maybe 30 seconds to get my drink and by the time I returned all my food was gone. I probably could have gotten my food faster by going to the grocery store.
  • Then there are the cab drivers who have never made any effort whatsoever to learn anything about their city and who get mad at you when you are unable to give them street by street directions to where it is you are seeking to go (another, as far as I know, peculiarly China phenomenon).
  • Oh and the peddlers, who I am convinced are more aggressive and more irritating in China than anywhere else in the world. Most require either screaming or pushing to get them to go away and even those tactics are not always effective. In fact, this last trip, co-blogger Steve forced someone who had been on our tail into a light pole, at which point he twisted around and screamed down Nanjing Lu that he could get us “young girls.”

Now before anyone accuses me of nit-picking or of being a whiner, I will note that I recognize that none of the above really amount to much, but they are just one of many examples of the sort of day to day things that can grind people down in China and that really do not tend to happen nearly as much outside China (including in other developing countries). As an international lawyer friend of mine who goes to India likes to point out, “it is no accident that four of the top twenty-five hotels in the world are in India and not a single one is in China.

And none of this even gets to the heart of what makes business in China so tough. I used to claim China was not so bad when it comes to product and safety defects and that we just hear about China so much because China makes such a large share of our products. I said that until I met someone really high up in the United States Consumer Protection Agency who told me that every single year China does far worse than any other country on a percentage basis.  As he put it, “there is something very different about China.” I know someone who teaches at one of the better universities in China and he says he has given tests where every single one of his students cheat. I am guessing China has a big lead (again, on a percentage basis) in terms of poisoned food as well. I could go on and on, but what would be the point?

But why did I not write the blog post the last few times I planned to do so? Because after I get back to the United States I realize that people are people and I was not being fair to China by acting as though just about everyone there is incorrigible. In other words, common sense prevailed.

But I have written this now because I just saw something somewhat similar in the strangest of places. I was going through my old emails and I came across new issue of China Sourcer Magazine.

Then, I did something I virtually never do, which is read the Letter from the Editor. I read it because the Editor is my friend and fellow blogger, David Dayton, over at the Silk Road International blog.

The letter starts out with Dayton describing how he was almost trampled by a group of Chinese tourists in Hong Kong, which then, in a not all that roundabout way, caused him to ruminate about Chinese negotiating tactics and how one’s own attitude can shape how negotiations go:

And it got me thinking: probably one of the funniest things that I have ever read about working in China was a quote from some expat teachers living in Beijing who said: “To most Chinese, win-win is a panda bear in Sichuan.”

I know that in my years of working in China, more than once I’ve started negotiations with that attitude in mind–and you know what? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I think that it’s me against the world, that’s exactly how it all turns out. I’m sure that much of the not-getting-to-win-win in these situations was my fault. I went in spoiling for a fight, and no matter what was said, that’s just what I got.

While negative attitudes are surely unintentional, this probably happens a lot more than we’d like to admit. With the bad economic situation lingering on there are additional pressures and hard feelings. Combine the latter with the uncertainty and trust issues on both sides of the table and you have situations that make polite and effective negotiations almost impossible. Even when we go into things with a good attitude and desire to make thinks work out for everyone, there are so many other variables that can affect what we do; and what’s done to us.

The working environment in China today is tough. There are a lot of buyers and suppliers that are being “weeded out” of the mix. The low-hanging fruit is gone. So people on both sides of the negotiations are sharpening their wits and their pencils to make sure that they make it through to the other side (where the grass is greener).

That day in the airport I realized, probably for the thousandth time, that win-win is pretty much up to me. That even though foreigners are no longer trusted and treated like ten years ago, and while currency issues make even the simplest of transactions more difficult, if I want to get to win-win, I still can. It’s my choice.

I am not going to say your attitude towards China is everything, but I will say it matters. Among my law firm’s clients, there is definitely a correlation between those who actually like China and do well there on the one hand and those who hate it and fail on the other hand.

Whether it be something as truly trivial as having to wait a minute for French toast (of course I know that is trivial) or getting cheated on a business deal, China is not an easy place in which to conduct business. But in the end, I agree with Dayton. A lot of it depends on what you put into it.

I apologize for being so trite today, but I just could not help it.

What do you think?

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