China Connection

July 18th, 2014

Note: This is a  very slightly altered version of a post I wrote on my Linked In profile. There’s a link to my Linked In profile on the right sidebar if you’re interested.

The New Zealand Herald has been running a China Connection series by Paul Lewis in association with the BNZ every Friday, and as the series continues it gets more interesting. Today’s instalment looks at SMEs and China, and there are three points that grabbed my attention.

The first point may well come across as a bit nit-picky on my part, but I will explain. Look at this sentence:

“Last month, BNZ took a delegation of exporters – dairy farmers, croppers and mixed agri-business interests – to Shanghai, Beijing and Xian, checking out export opportunities.”

There is a spelling mistake here, and it is not as minor as it seems. The problem is in the names of those three Chinese cities. Now, it is fair to not include tone diacriticals, as a strict adherence to the rules of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn would dictate, firstly because the article is in English and aimed at a general anglophone reader base, and secondly because very few Chinese people bother including tone diacriticals. Far more important, though, is the missing apostrophe. In Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, when the spelling of a word creates some confusion as to whether it is one syllable or two, or where the break between two syllables is not made clear by the spelling, an apostrophe is used to separate the two syllables. Xian is one single syllable, and therefore one Chinese character, perhaps 先 (first), 县 (county) or 线 (line). The name of the capital city of Shaanxi Province is Xi’an – the apostrophe makes clear that it is two syllables and where those two syllables break. In Chinese characters it is 西安 – you can see the difference between the city name and the monosyllabic possibilities above.

This is not just a writing teacher being unnecessarily or excessively fussy about spelling, nor is it a Sinicised version of the rage some feel at the sight of the infamous ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. Attention to detail is important. David Cunliffe’s electorate office recently had a bit of bother digging up some old documentation because somebody had filed it under ‘Lui’ instead of the correctly-spelled ‘Liu’. I am aware of a recent case where somebody’s inattention to detail has caused quite a lot of strife for some new graduates, to the point where one has lost a job because her paperwork did not arrive in time, and other people’s jobs or enrolment in masters degree courses could be affected. Inattention to apparently minor detail can have some surprisingly big real world consequences.

The second point that grabbed my interest was this:

“The interests of the two countries tended to be complementary – Australian business tended to focus on beef and grains and minerals while New Zealand’s primary interest was dairy.”

The first reason that grabbed my attention is the image of the two countries playing to their relative strengths. That is absolutely what needs to be done. Unfortunately, in my experience in education, it is something that all too often fails to happen. I have seen far too many rely on something vague like “the English language” or “quality education”, perhaps with “comparatively cheap” thrown in. This is the wrong approach because plenty of other bigger, better known countries have exactly the same thing to offer. New Zealand is a very small player in a very large world, and so New Zealand needs to be very specific and very loud about the precise advantages and strengths that New Zealand has to offer. This applies to the country as a whole and to every specific company, organisation and institution looking to break into the China market. The deal EIT is doing with Qilu University of Technology that I posted about on July 4 (I hope that link works – I’m still getting used to Linked In’s set-up) is a good example of how things should be done – EIT playing up the specific strengths it and its region have to offer to a university and a region that stand to benefit directly from those strengths.

The third point to grab my attention was this:

Asked whether the two countries had a different approach to doing business in China, Healy said: “I think New Zealanders have a natural advantage in working well with other cultures. You can see how that comes out of daily life here.

“New Zealanders perhaps come across as more culturally aware whereas Australians maybe tend to be more strongly perceived as Australians. It means New Zealanders do well overseas, when dealing with locals from different cultures.

My experience has been different. Yes, New Zealanders do generally get along. I think that’s the advantage of coming from a conformist, non-confrontational culture – from an early age you are taught to find ways to blend in and compromise. But, well, put it this way: Although Americans have the reputation for being bad, ungrateful and ungracious travellers, I have met Americans who speak standard Mandarin better than most Chinese. All the Americans I’ve met in China who do not speak Mandarin have been apologetic about that fact. I have heard two New Zealanders boast about having lived in China for years and not speaking a word of Mandarin beyond the bear necessities to travel between work, home and play and keep themselves fed and watered. I have seen New Zealand programmes in China fail in part because management was blissfully unaware of the linguistic, cultural and social aspects of what they were trying to do in China. Quite simply, New Zealand does not value foreign language or cross-cultural communication skills anywhere near enough, and too few New Zealanders appreciate the importance of the linguistic, social and cultural aspects of business.

This ties into a theme that runs through Lewis’ article: Preparation. To succeed in China you must be well prepared. I have seen some arrive in China apparently thinking that Jim Morrison’s advice to Wayne in Wayne’s World 2 is all they need: “If you book them, they will come”. No.  In addition to all the usual legal, financial and commercial considerations, you need to remember that you’re dealing with a very different culture and a very different society, and that everything is going to be translated into a very different language. It sounds obvious, and it is obvious, but I’ve seen too many forget this. For example, your posters full of pictures of young people climbing mountains, surfing, skiing and kayaking might be great for recruiting New Zealand students who are looking as much at lifestyle considerations as they are at study opportunities, but they will have Chinese parents saying no and moving on – and yes, I have seen this. But wait, “New Zealand students”, “Chinese parents”? Well, yes. If it’s education you’re selling you need to understand that there is a very different set of equations governing who makes the decisions and how. So how do you attract Chinese students? What is written about China in English represents only one tiny part of the picture. To keep up with how things are changing in China and how those changes are going to affect your business, whether it’s milk powder or IT or education, you need to get a fuller grasp of the overall picture. During Fonterra’s recent DCD and botulism scandals the New Zealand media passed on Fonterra’s and the MPI’s assurances that everything was fine. The Chinese media reported something rather different.  You need to be able to listen to Chinese people and read what they write.


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