A Beginner’s Guide to Cultivating Business Relationships in China

Over the past 30 years, China has undergone an extreme economic shift, going from a largely agricultural society to being 52% urbanised by 2013. It’s now the biggest trading partner for most Asian economies and after the United States, is the world’s largest economy.

Along with all the certifications, standards and other paperwork you have to deal with, you also need to understand how to conduct yourself when dealing with Chinese businesses. There are a number of social and cultural norms you need to know about in China, that are wildly at odds with Western business practices.

At Dragon Import Services, we understand exactly how to work with Chinese businesses in order to get you the best possible import deals. Throughout the years, we’ve built up strong relationships with Chinese suppliers and have amassed a broad cultural knowledge of how to successfully conduct business there.

Whilst there are many small and intricate pieces of business etiquette to remember when conducting business with Chinese companies, we’ve listed 9 of the most important social and cultural things to remember when entering into a business relationship with Chinese companies.

Don’t expect western concepts of time

In China, definitions of time are different and won’t necessarily give you an idea of when an hour passes. For example, in the UK, we generally take noon to mean 12pm. However, in China it’s used to describe any time between 11am and 1pm. If you’re waiting to hear from a Chinese trade partner or need to meet a deadline, this can be an essential factor to remember.

 Shaking hands

In the west, it’s almost natural for us to shake hands upon meeting with our business associates and contacts. However, in China, this expression of affability can be considered both impolite and disrespectful.

When meeting with potential Chinese business associates, don’t be surprised or offended if the most you receive is a small handshake and a more reserved greeting.

Always exchange business cards before your meetings

A brilliant way to show your respect for your Chinese counterpart is to have a double-sided business card with your details in both English and Mandarin. The lack of a business card is similar to western businessmen not shaking hands when meeting, and if you don’t offer one, it will be noticed.

This applies even if you’re already familiar with the position and job title of the person you’re being introduced to. When you receive a business card, ensure you read it and place it in easy sight if you’re sitting at a table.

Learn and understand the intricacies of guanxi

Guanxi has no simple translation to English, but can be described as “Connections and relationships outside the family” and is a foundation of Chinese culture and society. It’s very important in China for people to properly know the people you wish to do business with before you conduct business. Whether, how, why and how business is conducted is based on the relationship you share.

Meals aren’t ‘just meals’

When meeting with Chinese trade associates, you will undoubtedly be invited to lunch or dinner at some point, where it’ll be considered extremely rude to discuss business. That’s not to say there isn’t any business goal achieved by going for a meal, due to the concept of guanxi. Remember that it’s quite common for people who have been absent from you business meetings to attend the dining table.

Remember your table etiquette

In China, it’s believed that good luck is brought with good table manners and that shame is the result of bad table manners. As a westerner, you will find there is too much food at the table (the amount of food on offer is intended to be a sign of the host’s prosperity), but ensure that you at least try every dish there.

Always accept the last serving of the dish the host has singled out as the best, as this has been offered as a sign of hospitality.

Passing over on a toast

Things that don’t happen matter just as much as things that do when it comes to building business relationships in China. Even if you have a legitimate excuse, by declining anything offered from your host, you will inadvertently cast a bad mood over the meeting or meal. If you can’t drink, it’s always best to let your host know before the toasts start.

Expect to be asked a lot of questions

In China, there is no aversion to asking questions not considered polite in the west. Your Chinese business partners will openly ask questions that you wouldn’t consider in the west. Men should expect to be asked about their finances and assets, and women will often be asked about their marital status.

Dignity is valued over profit

When you conduct business in China, you must be aware that directly saying ‘no’ is very unpopular. But refusing, you will cause your associate to lose face (and therefore dignity), an unforgivable act. It’s much more wise and polite to say ‘no’ indirectly.

On the other hand, don’t accept to hear a definite ‘yes’ in business, either. In Chinese business, saying ‘yes’ is more of a flexible concept that can change depending on guanxi.


If you’re looking to import consumer goods, components or other products from China to the UK at highly competitive rates, why not call the experts at Dragon Import Services? Call our friendly and professional team on +44(0)1953 440 047 or send us a message today.