How to do business in China: the importance of guanxi

If you’ve ever made a business trip to China, you’ll have heard about guanxi. If you’re new to China and considering doing business there, you need to know about guanxi. So what is this key element of building relationships with Chinese business partners? What is the importance of guanxi?

Who you know is more important than what you know

It isn’t easy to directly translate guanxi into English but its approximate meaning is ‘social connections’ or ‘personal relationships’. Essentially it refers to the interpersonal networks of people we each build to help us succeed in our careers. And guanxi is key to being successful in business in China.

For much of Chinese history, guanxi has been the glue that has held society together. Traditional Chinese society was mostly rural and built around family and social connections, which are also emphasised in Confucianism. Essentially, it’s natural to do business with people you know. We might even characterise guanxi as ‘Who you know is more important than what you know’.

So how should you approach doing business in China, taking guanxi into account?  And can you create your own guanxi?

Creating your own guanxi

Is it possible for a non-Chinese person to create their own guanxi? Tony Evans did. Tony is Co-Founder of Bristol International College and Experio Life Ltd, a consultancy business specialising in educational travel for the youth market. With more than 30 years’ experience in education and a continent-spanning career, Tony is used to cross-border working and international collaboration. So he wasn’t phased by getting involved with the Chinese market. We spoke to Tony to hear more about his experiences.

In 2015 Tony identified untapped Chinese demand for international education. Working with a Chinese business partner in the UK, Tony selected and appointed a bilingual in-country representative. The local rep identified suitable schools and agents, arranged local introductions, and planned itineraries and every aspect of travel. Tony visited China two or three times every year, spending about 30 days annually travelling vast distances and holding many meetings in China to build relationships and establish that all-important guanxi.

The result? In 2019, 50% of Tony’s summer school students were from China – an increase from just 10% in 2016.

How to do business in China

So it is possible to create your own connections, or guanxi. But it’s a lot of work and commitment, and you need inside help.

  1. Have a trusted local partner

Work with a local partner to identify the right people to meet. The right person in China knows your market and industry, and will have the necessary connections to match you with promising business contacts.

  • Get introductions

Make sure you’re not approaching potential business partners ‘cold’. A written introduction from a trusted Chinese contact is the minimum; an inperson introduction is better.

  • Work with a local translator who is not just bilingual but bicultural

Use a translator who understands your industry jargon and can interpret cultural differences for you. Understanding cultural and linguistic nuance is vital to achieving results.

Many cross-cultural challenges in business

And tackling guanxi is just one cross-cultural challenge among many. Don’t forget:

  • Seniority is important. It’s vital that senior associates make contacts and nurture relationships. Don’t ever send someone who the Chinese might perceive as junior to a meeting
  • The Chinese don’t like to say no. Apparent agreement is often not what it seems
  • Meeting etiquette is important. What Westerners perceive as ‘small talk’ is crucial relationship-building

We can help you establish great working relationships with business partners in China. We are experts in promoting tourism brands in the Chinese market and have long-term relationships with the important Chinese media, Key Opinion Leaders (influencers) and travel trade. The travel specialists in our Beijing office have existing guanxi with many of your potential business partners – and can visit them in person to promote your product ready for when China’s 100 million plus outbound tourists start booking overseas travel again.

Contact us now for a no obligation chat about the possibilities of the Chinese outbound travel market and how we can help guanxi work for you.

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