China going global

How communicators can help Chinese companies to engage international audiences

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Chinese companies seeking to engage global audiences face several challenges, many of which are rooted in culture. Overcoming them is the job of the professional communicator.

It was way back in the late 1990s when I started paying attention to China. Enrolled in an international relations programme, we were studying new concepts with catchy names like ‘soft power’ and how sovereign states use it to develop their own cultural cache. We’ve since been inundated with content expounding the global village we all live in today. My experience is that the local environment, values, cultures and other elements where we live are very powerful drivers of perception that are sometimes insurmountable regardless of how “international” one may seem. China’s culture is one such dynamic that, although the country has been changing radically since the “Reform and Opening up” engagement with the west, is still incredibly focused on being ‘Chinese’ and may be interpreted as being inward focused. This may be an oversimplification, but the cultural values of the Chinese are unique and pose unique challenges for Chinese organisations as they communicate with global audiences.

Culture impacts communications

Culture strongly impacts global communications. There is no doubt about it. While many Americans are relishing the tearing down of all things associated with political correctness during last year’s presidential election, even the notion of political correctness is a very foreign concept in China. The Chinese can often be very blunt and direct in their opinion of others. For example, I know immediately when I’m gaining or losing weight – I’m told so by friends and colleagues without asking! While this certainly serves a purpose in keeping me more fit than I would be back in my native US, hearing this content with a western lens is more than annoying – it can be infuriating. For the Chinese, it’s just a way of chatting that “pulls us closer together”.

While this is a simple and perhaps humorous example of a major cultural difference between the Americans and Chinese, it’s a small but significant hint at how different things can sometimes seem.

American values are not universal

Part of my work involves counselling Chinese and western clients about international communications to help them better understand global (and Chinese) audiences. We start by discussing the philosophical and historical foundations of Chinese and western culture and how this impacts thinking today. We also prepare and review social research that highlights similarities and differences between cultures. What seems obvious can often be very enlightening. For example, it’s only after living in China for over a decade that I’ve come to have a new perspective on the American values system.

I was awakened to this while bringing my Chinese in-laws to the United States on their first visit. We were in New York City getting ready to cross to Ellis Island and take pictures of ourselves with the Statue of Liberty. My in-laws starting talking about the statue using its Chinese name, which when interpreted in English is the equivalent of “Goddess of Freedom”. I’ve been around the world and seen a range of various religious sculptures and idols, but I’ve never drawn a connection between those idols and the American idol on Ellis Island. Indeed, the majority of Americans worship individual freedom with blind faith. And infringing on one’s personal rights is equivalent to sacrilege.

The focus on individual rights and freedoms is very American and is couched in the American historical narrative. The Chinese don’t share this historical narrative, of course. Theirs is a rich and long narrative which results in a focus upon the harmony and balance of the group over the individual.

The power of history

The Chinese are some of the most historically minded people in the world. They are steeped in history lessons from the beginning, and the narrative is one that is 5,000 years in the making. China didn’t start as a democracy – it started as an imperial and feudal state. And this remained the case for the majority of Chinese history until the overthrow of the Qing dynasty just over a century ago.

Why this matters today is because the nature and expectations of contemporary leadership and authority are largely reflected through this narrative – and these expectations are very different than in the west.

For example, there is an expectation for leaders to be more distant and more authoritative. It is actually acceptable and perhaps even preferred. The results of this are that many working level people in a Chinese organisation are not informed of key decisions or engaged to be part of the decision-making process. Their role is executional and their job is to implement the decisions provided to them.

For Chinese companies seeking to communicate with global audiences, this is challenging for myriad reasons. First, when entering new markets, the most successful foreign companies strategically identify ways to build positive relationships and experiences with stakeholders in the local market. This requires long-term planning that is more tied to strategy than on-the-ground execution and immediate results.

The results of combining the authoritative nature of decision making with an expectation of power distance and a preference for harmony with less access to information means that stakeholder engagement is often missing or executed reactively as a result of an issue.

The experience of Chinese business in Africa is telling on how Chinese business will need to change this dynamic to succeed abroad. Their licence to operate comes with the leadership’s will to engage, listen carefully to others and change their approaches accordingly, three inherently challenging things for leaders of Chinese organisations to do.

“Culture strongly impacts global communications. There is no doubt about it.”

Developing the hypothesis of China’s historical narrative and its impact on today’s communications further, it’s instructive to understand how the Chinese communist party has secured and retained power. The century leading up to the founding of the Chinese communist party in 1949 is referred to in Chinese as the “century of humiliation”. Starting with the Opium Wars, China was continually invaded by a host of foreign powers and forced to accept unequal treaties, had their equivalent of the White House or Buckingham Palace looted and burned twice and lost territory including Hong Kong to foreign invaders.

It was at the end of that century when the Chinese communist party corralled and infused a sense of cultural pride and passion in being Chinese and rising up against these foreign powers to win independence. Sixty-eight years later, we look at China with our modern western-coloured glasses and fail to understand why a man like Mao Zedong held any appeal or how a one-party system came to be adopted by the people in the first place. Yet this narrative of overcoming the humiliation imposed by foreign powers has never been forgotten in China. It is taught to the young, retold through dramatic television and quoted in leaders’ speeches.

Reasonable reasons for the Chinese perspective

The implications for communications today may not be immediately obvious. Reflection reveals that China will do what’s in China’s best interests – and it will do it with popular support. Whether it is fishing in disputed seas or developing a particular domestic industry, there is a historical story behind it that says “it’s China’s turn now. We need to watch out for ourselves, or we will get taken advantage of”. And there are actually good reasons for believing this, if you’re Chinese.

The Chinese are some of the most historically minded people in the world. They are steeped in history lessons from the beginning.”

However, as China takes on a more leading role as a global power, it must address this apparent contradiction carefully. Chinese leadership often claims that China’s rise is a peaceful rise and China doesn’t have a history of invading countries. Aside from sending troops across borders during past wars, this is also actually true. China isn’t invading other countries but is focused upon building itself up. This should be reassuring to outsiders. The challenge for Chinese organisations is that most of the world doesn’t share the same historical narrative and doesn’t understand it. There is much more work to be done to help outsiders understand.

Cultural sensitivities cause challenges

Part of the challenge Chinese organisations now face is simply not understanding enough about what may be offered in other markets or cultures. And the results are often disastrous. We saw this most recently with Qiaobi laundry detergents. This embarrassing television advertisement was not only based upon an older Italian ad, but incited anger outside China with claims the company was racist and bigoted. While this company could clearly have benefited from better global market research and strategic counsel, it is possible they were acting from a racist lens but it’s also possible they acted simply out of ignorance.

It’s easy to criticise Chinese organisations when they make such blatant mistakes. What may be less comfortable is pointing out the equally ignorant flaws of multinationals in China. I’ve seen numerous cases of global campaigns that were decided in New York or London with a foundation of robust market research but absolutely no consideration of the Chinese market. Obvious mistakes can be avoided by including this market in any campaign strategy development. Indeed, the hub and spoke model of global campaign development is slowly becoming a thing of the past – and good riddance. As China’s influence rises, its subsequent influence as a decision maker on global campaigns also rises.

Three starting points for successful engagement with Chinese organisations

1. Read some history. Read some famous old Chinese novels. A solid and curious read of Chinese history and a brisk read through one of China’s pillar historical novels will provide the context you need. You can try learning Chinese, but it will take you a decade or more to grasp the fundamentals – and the Chinese have a huge lead in already knowing English.

2. Don’t assume your thinking or culture is correct. I’m not recommending you discard it – just take an open mind and a critical view. It helps to increase understanding of others.

3. Hire a Chinese person or a person who has lived in China for a long time. Depending upon your need, it is incredibly helpful to engage a trusted Chinese or China-hand to help you navigate the complexity.

Brad Burgess

Brad Burgess is head of China, GHC Asia. In this role he leads the business operations and strategic development of the China market for GHC Asia. Brad's expertise includes global communications and reputation management for Chinese firms, multinationals and government ministries for a range of industries including tourism, food, education and technology. An American and fifteen-year resident of China, he is fluent and literate in Chinese. GHC Asia is a communications agency specialising in travel, luxury lifestyle, property and other industries. Brad was formerly director of Burson-Marsteller China.