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10 common China negotiating mistakes

by Andrew Hupert

You are a busy professional, so let me save you some time. You’ve got a China problem.

On the one hand, the only way to be successful in China is to build relationships with a wide range of partners, advisers, colleagues, suppliers, customers, staffers, bureaucrats, regulators, and even competitors. On the other hand, you have got to stay in control of your own goals and operations. Those two objectives are at odds with one another.

If you listen to everyone and take their advice at face value, you will end up working for your competition. If, on the other hand, you focus exclusively on your own goals and strategy, you will get blind-sided by the hyper-competitive, volatile Chinese operating environment.

The good news is that all the mistakes you are making, have just made, or are about to make have happened to other western managers before.

Over the last fifteen years an army of high-powered western managers have spent a great deal of time, money, and sanity correcting mistakes and figuring out where they went wrong and what they should have done instead. I know, because for much of that time I was one of the Old China Hands that western managers came to for answers, advice, and training.

I have boiled a decade’s worth of research down to a list of 10 “worst practices” that will help both up-and-coming newcomers and experienced China hands adjust their negotiating practices to be more successful and effective.

The bad news is that you -- or someone you depend on -- are probably committing some of these sins right now. It is easy to do since so many of these mistakes start out with the best of intentions.

As you read, remember three things:

1)    Good planning, rigorous internal communications, and focus on your goals can help avoid or minimize these problems.

2)    All of these worst practices can be repaired and trained away.

3)    If left unattended, these basic mistakes can undermine your entire China operation.

Negotiating mistakes

Here are the 10 least-wanted negotiating behaviors:

1)    Flying blind

You do not have to have all the answers, but you have to know the right questions.

2)    Building on a weak foundation

The most important China negotiation you will ever have doesn’t take place in China -- it takes place in your own home base.

3)    Declaring “Mission Accomplished”

China negotiations do not end because they aren’t supposed to.

4)    Losing control of your agenda

Learn to build relationships without taking your eyes off your goals. 

5)    Training your competition

No one in China loses IP or technology to strangers. Find the right partner early, and make sure that you are the right partner in order to hold on to him.

6)    Coasting on past successes or good starts

Chinese negotiators save tough issues until the bitter end.

7)    Searching for common ground

Plan on building bridges to surmount serious cultural gaps instead of relying on superficial similarities.

8)    Playing by US HR rules

America and Europe are buyer’s markets for experienced managerial talent. In China, decent middle managers think you are lucky to have them.

9)    Delegating the strategy role

It is great to get advice and input, but at the end of the day you are responsible for your own business plan.

10) Forgetting that it is only guanxi until you get caught

Chinese business customs rarely help Westerners, but if you get them wrong they can hurt you -- a lot.

To read more about each of the negotiating mistakes listed in this article, download the complete PDF report “10 common China negotiating mistakes

Andrew Hupert runs, an online platform that helps the international business community achieve greater success when doing business in China. He also writes He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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