Chinese Negotiations: Eating Bitterness

Negotiate 谈判 [tánpàn]The Chinese are highly skilled negotiators and some of the tactics applied can be attributed to 吃苦耐劳 or chīkǔnàiláo which can be translated as “eating bitterness and enduring labour” and meaning one’s ability to work hard and endure hardships. This blog will discuss and give suggestions on the importance of this element when negotiating with Chinese.

While Westerners place more importance on talent, the ability to chīkǔnàiláo are by Chinese seen as important and honourable. Children in China are taught and encouraged from a young age to study hard and for long hours. Mao Zedong is revered for the 18-month and 12,500km Long March through difficult terrain. Today, chīkǔnàiláo is reflected in the industriousness that drives the Chinese market-place economy.

To match your Chinese counterpart, three tactics can be applied. The first is to ask questions and ask the same questions again. It can actually be smart to be a little dumb. By asking “I didn’t fully understand what you meant. Can you explain again?” the opposite side will need to concede a little and you can expose weaknesses in their argument. Also, use counter-questions. The Chinese admire and respond to relentlessness so a question such as “We understand that delivery is important to you. Can you remind us again why?” could bring you closer to your objectives.

Second, it is important to show endurance by going to great lengths in your research and then educate your Chinese counterpart. It is important to explain your company’s situation, needs and preferences but be careful not to appear condescending. It is not a bad idea to provide your Chinese customers with information about your own competition or to couch arguments in the context of “international business practices’ to serve as education. To demonstrate potential results, invite your prospective customer to visit overseas for an opportunity to see the product or service in working.

Third, showing patience is a virtue and a sign of chīkǔnàiláo. The Chinese are skilled in using delays as a persuasive tactic so prepare yourself to stay a few more hours or even days longer than scheduled. One (possibly unintentional) reason for delays may be that Chinese will often need to consult with peers and managers for consensus. A combination of the negotiating party’s status and need for group consensus can complicate issues and require more time before an agreement is reached. Also, be aware that pauses in the negotiation cycle will allow your counterparts to think of more questions based on new information so be patient.

As some final advice: do ask questions, come prepared, offer information and explain your situation. And most importantly: show patience and match your Chinese counterparts through exercising chīkǔnàiláo.

This blog has focused on the chīkǔnàiláo aspect of negotiation. There are other important aspects such as guānxì 关系, intermediaries 中间人, social status 社会等级  and face 面子. I might cover some of these issues in another blog.

13 comments to Chinese Negotiations: Eating Bitterness

  • Good post. Foreign buyers are always surprised when they expect a quick reaction from the Chinese side (e.g. when the factory has made a mistake) and nothing happens for weeks. They don’t understand that delays are a negotiation tactic, and that the best move is to get another alternative to that supplier.

  • Looking forward to your further discussions on other aspects of Chinese ppl.

  • Richard Fu

    I would like to add observing not rushing to express opinions as an additional skill. Good observation gives a better understanding the roles they play. In my experience, the leading speaker in the negotiation is often enough not the lead or decision maker in the Chinese negotiation. Understanding your players better drives tactics and approaches.

    The process of Chinese negotiation is just like the process of drinking good Chinese tea. The joy favor is the result of long process of selection and preparation.

  • Stefan

    Hi there. This was a good post. I would like to add some of my experiences. I had to learn that many business deals are surely not decided on the negotiation table, that often the people being sent in there, are surely not the decision makers. Chinese buisness negotiations will face delays due to the above mentioned reasons, but I feel it is very important to figure out, which reason it is in particular. The most ennoying is, when the whole negotioation is just only a procedure, with no intention for a real deal. On the other hand many negotioations were dragging along, because the decision maker hadn’t been found out yet. Once you got the guy in charge, and you work him right, the deal may well be decided over dinner in a seafood restaurant between sea cucumber and lobster within a few minutes.
    I believe business in China is full of variety, full of surprises, full of tactics, it is a game, and many Chinese business people play it virtuously, most likely it is their passion, their element.
    So cheers and have fun.

  • Richard Fu

    Did somebody mention dinner? I am hungry already.

    Put the bribery aside, in west, we heard the deal is done in the golf course. In Russia, we heard the deals are done in the sunna, In Japan, we heard in the onsen, in China, it is the dinner time. Well said. In different places, but each deal is in the relax environment embedded with its own culture and value of arts.

  • David Petersson

    Hi Renaud, Leon, Richard and Stefan,

    Thanks for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts.

    Yes, there are many aspects to negotiations and I totally agree that finding the person able to make the decision is among the most important. Actually, I have come across the scenario when the decision maker is deliberately hiding in the background just to gauge the other side’s intentions and allow them to make concessions first.

    Wining and dining is certainly one way going about but one would have to be careful not to promise too much, or anything for that matter, after a couple of lobsters and Maotai shots.

    I suppose both of these are examples of additional negotiation tactics that can be deployed.


  • Eric Carlson

    Thank you David, this was very interesting to read. After 4 years of being here and working for a Chinese company some of the things you said were very familiar. Thanks for your insights!


    • David Petersson

      Thank you Eric for reading the blog and the nice comment.

      After living and working in China for about 20 years the place continues to fascinate me and I learn new things all the time.

      All the best,


  • Michael

    Dude, stop the overkill on the newly learned Chinese phrases.
    It doesn’t apply to everyone and stop the generalizations.
    It’s a small world afterall so why segregate people into groups or races?
    Can’t believe you make money of trying to apply phrases to groups.

    • David Petersson

      Hi Michael,
      Thank you for your comment. You are right in that the ideas presented don’t apply to everyone and that they were generalizations. However, as there are significant differences in how people approach negotiations, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of them with the intention of improving understanding between cultures and promoting business success. You are wrong in that these ‘phrases’ are newly learned and that I make any money on this.
      Best regards,
      David Petersson

  • Edward

    Thanks for the interesting insight David. As to Michael’s argument, David is obviously discussing business negotiation from a cultural perspective not a racial one (esp. since as Michael likely knows there is no ‘Chinese’ race). The cultural angle is definitely valid as negotiation, for example, in the US, Saudi Arabia and China are all very different. Certainly everyone is not the same – but you can break things down into infinite subgroups and that is of no practical value in creating guidelines for almost anything. Negotiation is an art and any guidelines are not straightjackets. I believe most Chinese believe they have a very unique culture, just ask Hu Jintao. And David hopefully your advice will help people understand eating bitter so they can taste sweet.

  • Richard

    Excellent post David. As for Michael’s comments, I can attest that David’s insights and educated opinions are based on experience. He also does not benefit monetarily from providing this information. I think the old adage that knowledge grows from standing on prior scholars shoulders comes to mind. We should all take value from knowledge shared and use it to adapt and pass on to create a more educated and informed society.

    Thanks for sharing yours David.

  • alagu

    Thanks David. Very interesting and would help me a lot in my business with china. Expecting other posts .

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