The art of the gift

Gifts in China can be very important. What is the right gift for a business meeting? The right gift depends on who you are, who you represent, who they are, who they represent, the occasion, the existing relationship(s) and the desired future relationship(s).

What is a good gift to bring on a business trip to China? If the gift is for an important business meeting, it needs to be carefully selected, because the “right” gift is just part of the process that precedes it.

Giving or receiving a gift is part of “guanxi,” the Confucian concept of relationship which is at the heart of all social and business affairs in China. It encompasses a complex set of values including hierarchy, respect, mutual benefit, obligation and “face.” Developing “guanxi” takes substantial time and commitment, but you cannot do business in China without it.

Custom demands that a Chinese host be very polite and hospitable, but as a foreigner you are automatically viewed with suspicion and distrust. The memory of China’s “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers used gunboats and drugs to force political, economic and territorial concessions from the Qing Dynasty is still part of every Chinese student’s education. As a result, trust is very difficult to earn, but you have no choice if you want to do something in China.

Business meetings in China are generally a serious matter and have to be handled carefully. How you are perceived and how you perceive them is as important in China as the United States. Creating the right impression in China is an art, not a science, and the right gift is just part of the performance. Before you have your meeting, there are a number of things you need to do:

  • You need to know who you are meeting, their background(s) and status in the company, how they regard the meeting and their goals for the meeting.
  • You need to let the other side know who you are, who you will be bringing, their status, how you regard the meeting and what your goals are.
  • If it is a first meeting and is important, it will be over or include diner.
  • You need to determine whether they or you should be the host.
  • You need to look at the restaurant which has been selected.
  • You need to have your interpreter and staff strategy and script sorted out.
  • You need to have your business cards with your contact information in Chinese printed on the back.
  • You need to select the gifts.
  • You need to have your after-dinner strategy and options worked out.

Remember, their impression of you will depend on how you handle the situation as a whole.

I could write a China Dispatch on each one of the bullet points listed above and probably will in the future, but you basically have two options: handle it yourself or hire a local intermediary to handle it for you. My own preference is for the latter. I use the same cultural development company I have used for years. They handle all the business intelligence, arrange interpreters, exchange the necessary information, take notes at the meeting, suggest appropriate gifts and make all the logistical arrangements. I just tell them my goals for the meeting, and they do the rest.

Larger foreign companies will often rely on their staff and or professional service providers, including Western law and accounting firms with offices in China.

Be careful. Just because someone looks Oriental does not mean they know how to make these arrangements. Chinese who have been outside China, even a few years, often have outdated notions about what is appropriate and even a native Chinese, because of differences in regional and socioeconomic background, may not be familiar with the right local approach. All your carefully planned efforts will amount to nothing if it looks like you are cheap, inappropriate or trying to offer a bribe.

I often have two different bags with gifts, so I am prepared to respond to the situation. There is a protocol to when and how to present gifts, which your intermediary can explain in detail. As a rule of thumb, it should be after dinner, the host goes first, you should admire their gift and then present yours along with a speech about its symbolism.

I pay on average about $75 an hour for services. Western law firms and accounting firms tend to be more expensive because they bill on Western standards and may not normally offer some of the logistical services an intermediary does.

Like all things in China, get references and be careful.

An example of what can happen if things are not handled well is a recent exchange between Florence, Italy, and Ningbo, China. Florence sent a replica of Michelangelo’s David to Ningbo and received two stone statues as part of a good will cultural exchange. The Chinese were surprised the Italians had sent them a statue of a nude boy and the Italians were disappointed in the aesthetics of the Chinese statutes. Ningbo reluctantly displayed the David, but so far, Florence has not reciprocated. An effort which was supposed to encourage friendship and understanding has now turned into a diplomatic tiff.

Note: if you ever happen to have a Chinese host who is rude and or inhospitable, you should immediately make an excuse and leave, do not offer to reschedule. Treating one’s guest poorly is an active sign of contempt, and if you accept it, you will be considered stupid and desperate and will be treated accordingly.

Einar Tangen is a former Milwaukee business executive who now lives in Beijing, China, where he advises the Heilongjiang Province on its technology valuations and acquisitions. Tangen previously served as the chairman of Wisconsin’s International Trade Council and is a former advisor to KOTRA (the Korean Government’s Direct Foreign Investment Recruitment Agency). Readers who would like to submit questions to Tangen about doing business in China can send an

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