Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Andrew Hupert's "Guanxi for the Busy American"

My friend Andrew Hupert, whom I first met in Shanghai several years ago, has for years managed a couple of very practical and helpful blogs on negotiating and managing in China (ChineseNegotiation.com and ChinaSolved.com).  Even before I met Andrew, I always wondered why he would give away such valuable information for free.

Well, now he's finally selling part of his wisdom in an e-book entitled Guanxi for the Busy American available at Smashwords in ten different formats including Kindle, ePub and PDF.  And at a price of only $2.99, it's a bit of a steal.  (Seriously, Andrew, you should charge more.)

Because it's in an e-format, it's easy to keep on pretty much any device and peruse on the plane on the way to China.  And whether someone is completely new to China, or an old China hand, the book is equally useful as both a source of necessary learning, or a reminder of how things work in China.

Much of this stuff simply doesn't come naturally to Westerners, and, even after nearly 20 years of travel to China, I occasionally need reminders.  The book is a relatively quick and easy read -- it took me a little over an hour -- but it's packed with both theory and practice on what this mysterious guanxi thing is all about and how to navigate one's way through a potentially tricky maze of gestures and obligations.

Andrew's writing style is clean and straightforward, but also descriptive and, at times, humorous.  Among the gems are statements like "Guanxi is the sweet candy shell that coats some potentially bitter medicine."  What he explains is that, while the whole process of building guanxi can seem light and even fun, it is a process that the Chinese take very seriously.  Mistakes made during this process can sink a partnership before it even gets off the ground.

Among the behaviors he warns against are denigrating the value of guanxi among your Chinese hosts by saying something like, "oh yeah, we have that concept in America too: it's not what you know but who you know," which is likely to be taken as an insult.  Your Chinese hosts will be more flattered if you simply admit that the whole concept baffles you and that America has nothing like it.  Even if that isn't true (and if you've read this book, it won't be true) it will buy you some credit with your hosts.  (I mention this particular bit of advice because I know I have violated it several times in the past.)

The book also offers a way to "de-code" some of the guanxi talk you are likely to hear at an early guanxi-building session with your hosts.
When they ask if you have been to China before, they want to know if you already have connections or are likely to grant them exclusive control (over your venture).
And another 
When they ask when you are returning to America, they want to know about your internal deadlines so they can time the negotiations to apply maximum pressure.
He also offers practical advice on how to deal with endless toasts and offers of cigarettes during banquets.  These are important rituals that tell the Chinese something about you.  More importantly, how they react to your behavior also tells you something about what kind of partner they would be.

One final point (among many dozens more) is that foreigners in China need to understand that their hosts generally want very much to invest in a long term relationship.  But one shouldn't be fooled into thinking that a relationship that begins well will result in an eternal bond.  The Chinese simply do not see it that way.  The relationship will only last as long as the Chinese partner thinks he is deriving value equal to or greater than yours.  Once that calculation changes, expect a re-negotiation.  And if you aren't open to re-negotiation, expect your counterpart who has invested time in learning the names of your spouse, children and pets to lose interest and stop returning your calls. 

The only real criticism I can think of is regarding the title.  I am not so sure that North American and Western European cultures are so different that this book wouldn't be immediately useful on both sides of the Atlantic (and down under as well).  Perhaps it might have been better titled Guanxi for the Busy Westerner.

Either way, people who do business in China need to load this book onto their Kindles and iPads.  And if you find yourself sending a newbie to China on behalf of your company, be sure he or she has this book ahead of time.  They will need to read it several times before getting on the plane, and probably several more while they are in China.


  1. I am not so sure that North American and Western European cultures are so different

    I have always found that American business culture has much more in common with Chinese business culture than with European, um, business "culture".

    I should read the book and make a few suggestions for the "Guanxi for the Busy pinko European" edition.

    1. You make a valid point, Marian. Though I don't think all of you are pinkos. :)

      Maybe a better way for me to have made my point would be to say that, because this book is about how to respond to predictable Chinese behavior, any Westerner (and probably many other non-Chinese) would benefit from it.


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