Understanding Chinese Officialdom

China’s entry into the globalized World denotes its powerful influence in many areas, economic, cultural, and military and now with the Beijing Olympics, sports. China’s expansive approach to the globe underlines the need for increased interaction at the people and the government level. To non-Chinese, the Chinaman particularly the official can be an enigma. However, since every person doing business or play in China will have to engage with the Chinese bureaucrat, we must learn how to tackle this stoic combination of Confucius and Mao. Some typical tips may be useful.

One of the most important facets of Chinese officialdom is perpetuity in positions of authority. China has a one party system, thus there are no large-scale transfer of officials based on ideology of the clique in power as in multi party systems as America where a Democratic President would replace the secretaries and staff appointed by a Republican one. Chinese official hierarchy is easy to assimilate and appointments are based on loyalty to the party, the leaders in power and individual competencies. The advantage of such a system is that officials in key positions that you meet would be having extensive background knowledge of the subject and legacy over an extended period. So one would have to do ones home work well to avoid being caught up in the trap of ignorance.

The extended one party rule in China means that ideologically officials are not only communists but also great nationalists. Thus, the Chinese government is able to pursue its agenda in distant lands in Africa or South America because of the single-minded devotion of the bureaucracy to national cause. Yes, the Chinese are not all national patriots, there are many who are personally corrupt, yet the overall trend speaks volumes of their dedication to the state.

This also implies that there is over centralization of authority and junior officials will always tow directions from the top, at times not responding until they receive clearance. Moreover when a Chinese executive speaks to the media particularly outside China, remember probably each word has been cleared from Beijing.

Chinese officials will always be an epitome of perfect behavior in public. They will be dressed appropriate to the occasion and be punctual both in arriving in time and in leaving once the deed is done and the official time is over. They would also like to maintain their unique identity even in a crowd. Therefore, you can never miss identifying a Chinese bureaucrat in the public.

Chinese executives serving in foreign lands will always be proficient in the indigenous language. Thus a Chinese diplomat serving in France will know French very fluently, one in India, not just English but also Hindi, in Madrid Spanish and in Tokyo, Japanese. They will go out of the way to make you comfortable by using appropriate vernacular phrases even when the conversation is multi lingual.

The neo Chinese is particularly proud of his ancient as well as modern heritage. Chinese think civilization and tradition has great value for them. Thus, some knowledge or reading about old World Chinese philosophy adapted to modern thought may establish a good rapport. Of course it is very difficult to master beliefs of a people, thus it is better to seek answers to questions rather than making comments, which may seem offensive. The responses will also give you an idea of the attitude of the person, thereby providing better options to approach him.

But never underestimate the power relations through which Chinese authorities will engage you. This will be evident from the approach that they adopt, based on who carries the advantage, if it is you, they would be extremely, affable and even servile but where they have an upper hand, they are extremely firm and polite and will tell you to get off at an appropriate time. So never, make the mistake of expecting the same attitude in a person twice. He will modify himself based on the configuration of power at a given point of time.

It is not good to forget small things with Chinese officials, be open with them only if you have developed acquaintance, do not greet a person with whom you are not familiar, even a handshake may not be appropriate the first time you meet but exchange of your business card a must. At the same time, enquiring of the family is taboo and these questions are likely to be rebuffed politely. But surprisingly the Chinese are not uncomfortable if you ask him about his job hierarchy, compensation or age.

So here were a few considerations for interacting with Chinese officialdom and as the World blends with Beijing and Shanghai more, it is worth the while to spare a thought for the Chinaman’s human and cultural side.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.