The Art of Meeting in China

Businesspeople Meeting in Sitting Area

Having a business meeting in China is different from having one in the West. If in the West it is common to meet in an office, a cafe, or a restaurant to talk business, meeting in China entails a completely different experience. Benjamin Stecher portraits one of his experiences

On a warm day in early March I arrived at a golf course in Suzhou to apply for the position of Operations Manager. I was chauffeured in a brand new Mercedes from the high-speed train station to the club where a procession of security staff, maintenance crew and caddies had been waiting patiently for my arrival to tip their heads to the white face who may soon be overseeing their every move. It wasn’t long before I was seated down in front of the Junior HR Director for my first in a long series of interviews that day.

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What makes any meeting in China unique is the pageantry and over-the-top zeal many Chinese (particularly those outside of Beijing and Shanghai) put on display for any foreigner who comes to either join their ranks, check out their products, or negotiate a deal. There are thousands of foreign importers and exporters working in the country who spend their time bouncing between factories and meetings to sit down with bosses or clients. Countless tales have been told in this land of the lavish banquets and gifts that have been doled out on these occasions. To think of all the countless millions that have been wasted on expensive looking dinners, vintage wines, rented luxury cars, etc.; all in a desperate attempt to get the foreign face to sign on the dotted line.

The meeting in China show was on full display for me as I entered the gates of the newly minted country club/yacht club/real estate enterprise/vacation destination of the group that owned the golf course. The fresh faced Junior HR Director began by apologizing profusely for her lack of English and then robotically read off a list of questions she had been given to ask. Ostensibly, she was polite and professional, never wavering from the task that had been given her, methodically checking off every box on her answer sheet while making sure the conversation didn’t veer into any topic she was not comfortable with, basically anything to do with the game of golf itself.

Next up was the Assistant to the Executive Director. A well travelled woman in her late twenties who spoke fluent English and who was a recent graduate of Fudan University, which she proudly claimed to be a member of the ‘Chinese Ivy League’. We toured the driving range, five star hotel, yacht club, and condos, all property of the club as she read off the prices of membership fees, vacation packages, hotel rooms, spa services, and a laundry list of other ‘high end’ offerings. We ended up on the first tee where she introduced me to a dozen caddies and then in front of all of them turned to me and announced in Chinese (so the caddies could understand) “if you ever see any of them doing anything wrong tell me”, before leaving me with one of them for a detailed look at all 18 holes.

The caddie, Vanessa, was a painfully shy woman who could not even speak standard mandarin properly. Along the way she belched out the distance from tee to green of each hole we passed while trying to teach me the names of all the different trees. Not only did the petite woman know all there was to know about the course, she could also name the winners of every major PGA tour event of the last five years. The caddies live together in a factory-like compound adjacent to the club where they are also given ‘golf education classes’. They come from distant parts of the country to chauffeur clients around and memorize every detail imaginable about the course and the game of golf. Despite these oddities, they were the only people I met all day that looked genuinely content with their work; fresh air, good conditions, and steady pay are a rarity for many migrant workers in China.

Next up was lunch with the HR Director, the only other fluent English speaker at the club. Over a feast of twenty different local dishes she gave me a run-down of the clients at their club: C.E.O.s of this or that manufacturer, president of this or that exporter, board member at this or that bank or telecom company, etc. She stressed that each paid 200,000rmb a year for membership and that only this exclusive list of members were allowed on the club… “well, except for government officials, they can come and go as they please.” She was refreshingly direct regarding what my role would be, ‘we need a foreign face to show to our members and the foreign partners we are trying to attract from around the world.’

Finally came time to sit with the man who ultimately made the decisions around the club, the Executive Director. I was lead up to the ‘18000rmb per night executive suite’ of the on-site hotel. There I sat for twenty minutes staring out the bay windows, on all sides of me was the golf course with a lake to one side and rolling green hills in the distance on the other. With champagne and caviar in tow the portly smiling man finally stepped out of the elevator and made his way over. He proudly introduced himself as a local product who had overseen the construction of all that I now see. After a few formal pleasantries, and half a bottle of champagne, he stood me up and guided me into the frame of one of the bay windows that overlooked the golf course and boasted ‘see this, this, I want you to take care of all this for me’.

With that last gesture the show ended, and I was whisked back to the train station. A few days later an offer came by email to ‘help become part growing tradition and building network’. As appealing as that sounded, and despite the perks that living in that kind of world offer, in the end I turned it down.

For those foreigners who enjoy this kind of show, you’ll have to get over here quick because it’s all slowly coming to an end. Already in Shanghai and Beijing most business professionals have adopted a more nuanced approach to how they treat their clients, customers and partners. Like all newly rich, with every day that passes the Chinese feel less and less like they have to show off. That said, today at least meeting in China is still quite a show, and it is eagerly awaiting anyone who still appreciates style over substance.