Gift or Graft? China Celebrates the Year of the Dragon

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:09 pm

As our holidays subside, China’s begins. Jan. 23 will usher in the Year of the Dragon.

The Year of the Dragon is one of the most desirable years to be born in. Dragons are powerful and often successful people whose weakness is they often lose touch with those around them. The Chinese New Year is also the beginning of the serious gift giving season, a time when old ties are remembered and new relationships begin.

The story

A person I know, who likes to frequent loud, noisy dance places, remarked that he had an excellent system which allowed him, a young non-Chinese speaking foreigner, to have a relatively nice and hassle-free time at the venues of his choice. When he enters the club and sees the security guards, he says hello, offers them a cigarette and a drink. They (large hulking men in black combat boots with shaved heads) usually waive the cover charge and take a dim view of anyone hassling their foreign “buddy.”

At each place, he always tips the same bartender and waitress, which results in a discount on his bar tab, and they make sure he gets served regularly.

While he was describing this, the scene from “Casino” where the character played by Sharon Stone glides through Las Vegas on a cushion of tips and payoffs, while she plays her “marks,” crossed my mind.

I asked why he was telling me this, and he replied that a lot of other young foreigners walk into a bar, order drinks loudly and demand premium tables. They let everyone know, just in case they didn’t notice a large group of foreigners wearing strange clothes, that they are foreign and rich. These groups, after a having had their fill of liquid encouragement, tend to get into scuffles, sometimes with each other, or with other rival groups of foreigners, or disgruntled locals, and are promptly ejected, sometimes painfully, by the bouncers. They are forever shouting for service and often get less then they bargain for in terms of quality and more than they should of in terms of the bill. They do not tip the waitresses or bartenders because “no one in China tips.”

Listening to his description, I thought of the parallels between these aspiring young ambassadors and some of the foreign business people who show up in China.

This kind of businessman, having left the restrictions of family and society on the runway, proceed to press their Chinese hosts for some ‘fun.’ This usually involves a visit to one of the more notorious bars or karaoke clubs where cute Chinese girls in six-inch heels will talk, dance, massage their egos and then other parts for a price. Interestingly, they often expect their Chinese hosts to pick up the tab for these nighttime excursions; because “that is the way business is done in China” a kind of business gift. They are partially right in the sense that their Chinese hosts are used to this and will oblige, because “this is how you do business with foreigners who come to China.”

The moral

While this is not a new observation, at this time of year, as the Chinese New Year gift giving season is just starting, it gives one pause to think about what is a gift, what is graft and what is the difference. In past Dispatches, the etiquette of giving and receiving gifts in China was discussed at length. The advice still holds true, but perhaps just in more conventional terms; more form than wisdom.

The truth is perhaps a lot simpler, that what you give or receive is a reflection of the existing or hoped for relationship and should be appropriate. If the gift is inappropriate, it is either in bad taste, or if expensive, it possibly is graft. While this is not a legal test or bright line, it should guide you in China, just as it guides you at home.

So if you are coming to China to do business, do not be an insensitive Dragon. Stop thinking in terms of “how they (the Chinese) do business,” and think instead of how you “do business” and the kind of people and behavior that goes with it. And, if you are coming around the Chinese Lunar New Year, make a list, check it twice, use common sense and remember, whether you’re in Las Vegas or Beijing, everyone appreciates being thought of.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display