Opinion

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The importance of language in China

3 Mins

I recently retired as UK senior partner of BDO after 23 years as a partner with the firm. Last year, I took up a position as visiting professor at Xiamen University, China. My wife is Chinese and I decided to spend three months exploring business opportunities in the region and trying to learn some Mandarin. 

I’m blogging about my experiences in China for Real Business – catch up on part onepart two and part three of my journey so far.

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I spent today in Xiamen, with a self-made businessman who hopes to IPO on an overseas market early next year. 

Unlike most I have met, he not only worked overseas for several years before opening his first factory, but he also speaks good English. Given that my Mandarin is still lacking, we were able to examine his business in some detail without needing an interpreter. 

It brought home strongly how beneficial it is to be able to communicate effectively in order to build rapport and be a trusted adviser: it’s much easier when language is not a barrier! 

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Arrived in Shanghai and the temperature is only 27 Celsius – the coolest I’ve been for 17 days. 

What do businessmen wear in the heat and humidity of this region? Professionals in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong generally wear suits, ties are optional; in Singapore, jackets are optional, but ties and double cuffs seem the norm. 

Entrepreneurs everywhere favour polo shirts and chinos (as do their advisers outside the tier one cities) – and tend to drive big, chunky 4x4s (with good air-con, of course). 

Comfortable clothing choices are wider for female staff, although many mirror the males in their locality.

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Building a brand is the next big goal for just about every Chinese business. All of China’s top brands are state-owned (and recognisably such, eg China Mobile and Bank of China). 

Western brands are prized here and – as costs of production, selling and distribution in China are rising sharply – every business wants to move up the value chain. 

Even SMEs seem willing to pay for Western expertise to assist them build a brand; such advice will need to be given with sensitivity – not least because China is not just one vast market, in many ways it is many smaller ones. 

My money is on one or more globally valued brands being Chinese within this decade, as long as quality control is assured.

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