By Siah Hwee Ang*
When you visit China and are entertained by a local host, typically you share the same dishes at the dining table. If your Chinese host sees that you’re enjoying the food, it is considered polite. Likewise, it is polite to not pick up the last piece of food on the plate, as a gesture of modesty.
And if you’re observing such behaviours then you’re considered, to some extent, China savvy in the cultural etiquette sense.
So what does it mean to be China savvy and how do we do it?
A simple answer to the question of what it takes to be China savvy is to know and understand the basics of how Chinese individuals, Chinese organisations, and China as an economy behave and why.
It would be too lengthy to start listing what we should classify as basic understanding.
But in a nutshell, this should cover (but be not limited to) the following: (1) history; (2) geography (that includes landscape, climate, biodiversity, and environmental issues); (3) politics (that includes the structure and how the Chinese government operates, foreign relations, trade relations, and territorial disputes); (4) sociopolitical issues; (5) economy (that includes economic history and growth, China’s role in the world economy, currency, and income and consumption); (6) evolution of science and technology; (7) infrastructure development; (8) demographics (that includes ethnicity, languages, urbanization, education, health, and religion); and of course (9) cultures.
Yes, it is a lot of work to try to understand the basics of China (or any country). And, of course in this case, given the size of the country, there are added complexities in the form of intra-China differences.
Depending on your focus or purpose at hand, you don’t really have to know everything listed above. The real definition of being China savvy means you need to contextualise what is considered adequately savvy for a situation.
If it’s about interacting with Chinese individuals, then in general understanding the Chinese culture, etiquette, and perhaps some demographic awareness would suffice.
If it’s about interacting with (potential) business partners, then you will have to further add understanding of the economy, politics, geography and perhaps sociopolitical issues. So to be China business savvy, it takes more than just having cultural awareness, sensitivity, and demographics knowledge.
And if you’re involved at a higher level of engagement with China, then throw in history, science and technology development, and infrastructure development.
Of course this is just a guide, potentially interacting at the business level will mean having to understand the historical background of a particular province/city.
How do we enable being China savvy?
It’s fair to say that the more you need to engage with/in China, the more you need to know. And of course, the more you engage, the more you will know.
Nonetheless, it will be a tall-order to imagine someone knowing so much.
It would even be considered an achievement if someone knows the elements of being savvy simply for a particular city in China.
For a start, some of the basics of the understanding of being China savvy are out there thanks to the beauty of the internet. Important adjacent learning through this means is how China/Chinese interact with the rest of the world.
Then there is also Chinese migrants that bring with them pots of knowledge that we can tap into cheaply.
Kiwis who have travelled and worked in China represent another important source of knowledge.
Elements of being China savvy are taught in universities and advanced knowledge are well generated in tertiary institutions. Tapping into this vast resource is probably done in an unorganised way and to a limited extent. More can be done as well.
Enabling NZ to be China savvy requires not just the efforts of individuals, but also of public and private organisations that have incentives to make sure that the country, its organisation or individuals benefit from engaging with/in China. And the more we share, the better it is.
Professor Siah Hwee Ang holds the BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University. He writes a regular column here focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities for New Zealand in our trade with China. You can contact him here.