There Are Chinese, Then There Are Chinese


For many westerners and western companies, it’s hard to figure out why some Chinese have gone to the US for their graduate degrees, worked at name technology companies such as Intel and Microsoft, then come back to China, their homeland, start their own businesses, and fall flat on their faces.

How is this possible? They had everything going for them; they had the best education the US had to offer, worked in a great company, were smart and entrepreneurial, know the language, have connections, and they failed.

More often than not, these people have been away from China for a long time. Over time, they have become used to the American way of life, and while they keep up with what is going on in China, their knowledge and understanding of the country has gone stale. Gradually, they are more at home in America than in China. They jump on the China bandwagon because it is in the media all the time, and they hope to strike it rich.

Then they return to China and discover a country which is not the China which they grew up in. Compared to when they left, the role of the government is much smaller, the country has become more market-oriented in most sectors, and they may have lost many of their former connections. Worst of all, they look at the country through American-tinted glasses and use American society as a point of reference, something which does not work in China at all.

For any business or individual to succeed in China, you must understand China on Chinese terms.

This failure to understand China on Chinese terms is, in my opinion, why so many western Internet companies have failed in China. Moreover, the constant need of local management to report to headquarters outside of China, and to report every purchase they make, and more often, to explain what they are doing, puts a fatal hindrance on the decision-making process because the management is constantly tied up in knots educating someone in headquarters about China.

This makes for another very important point: No successful company in China can be successfully run from outside China; the key decisions and decision-makers must live, breathe, work and sweat in China every single day to make it work.

The single most important bad decision western companies make in China is to force the local China management to consult with headquarters about every matter; this makes the local management look weak in the eyes of their own staff. After all, what is the point in staying with a company if they do not have the power to make decisions even if they are sitting in the corner office?

It all comes down to how empowered people are to make their own decisions, and to be held responsible and accountable for them.

It makes much more sense for them to break out and start their own company, often taking the idea the western company had, but was not able to implement in China because they were constrained by headquarters’ indecision. In the Internet sector, where change is happening so fast, it makes no sense to sue and countersue; that would only make the lawyers happy and not solve the basic issues.

This just scratches the surface of why being Chinese is no guarantee of success in today’s China. Put simply, the society has changed too much too fast, and unless outsiders live here and deal with local Chinese who have never been outside China and speak only Chinese on a daily basis, they will fail.

In business, success cannot be guaranteed, but failure can…

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