Artlink launch: Connie Zheng’s five principles for working in China

Stephanie Britton, Connie Zheng, Kevin Murray, Jacqui Durrant, Emily Potter, Neil Fettling and Fiona Hall

Stephanie Britton, Connie Zheng, Kevin Murray, Jacqui Durrant, Emily Potter, Neil Fettling and Fiona Hall

The launch for Artlink gathered together the local Melbourne contributors to the After the Missionaries issue. To mark the occasion, Dr Connie Zheng from RMIT spoke about the nature of doing business with China. Her thoughts provided much food for thought about the new kinds of dialogue opening with countries like China. Here’s an excerpt:


Speaking about how Chinese do business, two words came into my mind: ‘paradox’ and ‘duality’.

A paradox is a contradiction or a situation that is not in line with our common sense. In fact, just a few days ago, I happened to experience such paradoxical situation, which might give you a bit of glimpse into how Chinese do business. [Dr Zheng related a story about visiting a shop in Springvale to be offered a special ‘Chinese price’ much lower than that offered to non-Chinese].

While a paradox is a situation one encounters passively, a duality tends to be a choice or response one actively makes. Indeed, the Chinese shop owner would have to have dualistic response to different customers every day instead of being consistent as most people in the West would do…..

Why do Chinese work this way? Many would find such an approach illogical, yet for Chinese, they appear quite consistent and logical. Why? Because most Chinese worldview has been formed from many times of encountering paradoxes and dualistic responses to these paradoxes. As the Chinese worldview tends to be influenced largely by Taoism and Confucianism. One can find many paradox by reading the book of Taoism, Dao de jing. From there, you will read texts such as ‘there would be no love without hate, no light without darkness, no male without female’; this is quite different from what Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, which has a very strong time-sequential sense ‘there is time for everything, a time to love, a time to hate, a time for peace, a time for war…’

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Different to the Western’s thinking which is quite linear, time sequential, logical and analytical, Chinese thinking is correlative, non-linear, more holistic and in many ways appears illogical. So it is comfortable for Chinese to see that ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ co-exist. Crisis as expressed in Chinese word (wei ji) in fact represents not just threat but also opportunity. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ must be together to see things clearly. Chinese knows well that things are made of ‘East’ and ‘West’ (dong xi) and if anyone who act inhumanly, they are called ‘things’ neither from east nor west. Indeed any ‘contradiction’ is fine so long you have ‘spear’ and ‘shield’ which are the exact Chinese words (mou dun) for contradiction and paradox.

So you see, in the world largest socialist and communist country, free market thrives yet social service and welfare mostly lacks. Chinese business people are more relaxed when responding to these types of paradox than their western counterparts as paradox and duality are really part of their daily life. This is not to say that they like this type of life with lots of contradictions. In fact, for the very reason of their dislike, Chinese has developed, over centuries, certain rules of social and business dealings which help guide them to weave through this complex social and economic fabric.

Perhaps by briefly explaining these key business principles with a couple of examples, it may help us better understand how Chinese do businesses:

First of the utmost business principle is trust – Chinese words are cheng xing – sincerity and trust. Trust reduces the level of uncertainty caused by paradoxes. Without trust in their counterparts, it would be very difficult to even get Chinese to talk about any business.

The second principle is reciprocity. This is really the follow-up step to further reinforce trust between business parties. Gift-giving, sharing meals not going by Dutch but by taking turn to pay bills as a way to express this type of reciprocity.

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The third principle is that of building strong relationshipguanxi as most of us probably all have heard of. Guanxi networks not only facilitate close circle business dealing, but also build almost a very strong ‘word of mouth’ marketing strategies without spending a cent on advertisement.

The fourth principle is to do with business operation within the in-group. I have earlier mentioned about how Chinese always think that they are doing things differently from the outgroup. To Chinese, in-group is easy to build trust. In-group when combined with patriotism can be quite scary sometimes in business dealing. For example, how Chinese respond to the collapse of deal with Rio Tinto [response from China to Australia’s anxiety about losing influence is to say that Rio is already a foreign-owned company anyway]. In-group business operation acts as a buttress to protect Chinese own business interests whilst saving face from having to explain paradoxical situations which only Chinese can understand.

The last but not the least principle is to ensure the close tie to certain higher bodies – so called having a hat to protect business interest. Hats are color-coded, ‘Red’ for the communist party and its associated agencies, ‘Green’ for the army, ‘White’ for foreign companies. Every Chinese business man and woman would need to spend substantial amount of time and resources to search and find these hats, and constantly please and play with these hats, especially the red and green hats. For pragmatic Chinese, white hat is very useful as it can blend with other hats and create new kinds of colour hats which are useful for business, so foreigners are definitely most welcome in China in terms of doing business.

With many paradoxes, dualities and rules only in-group Chinese can understand, how could we, Australians build a link and break into the art industry in China? In fact, I do not have answer. But I believe that the art works can truly be used as a form to build the global link.

For most of us, a fascinating piece of artwork can take our breath away so the differences in thinking and mindsets of the person who creates the piece are no longer important. Instead our focus shift to the beauty and meaning of the art itself. In the same way, I believe a true art form can dim down the differences between cultures and peoples and let the true humanity of life, love, peace, joy, compassion and understanding shine. With that note, I take great pleasure to launch this very special issue.

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