It is said that, during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was famously asked for his view of the impact of the French Revolution. Zhou remarked that it was ‘too early to say’, a quote which is often used to emphasise the differences between China and the western world when it comes to measuring a reasonable timeframe.

Whilst you shouldn’t be expected to invest more than a century or two to realise your business ambitions in China, you should certainly expect for it to take more than a year, during which you should expect to make many trips to China to meet with your Chinese partners, suppliers and/or clients. As I write this article, I am returning from a two week visit to China (my third this year, and seventh in the past 12 months) during which we concluded an investment deal (see signing ceremony above) which we have been actively working on for the past 12 months (including at least 4 visits to China to meet with the key decision-makers, usually over dinner) and lots of hard work behind the scenes to build trust, manage the lawyers and keep everyone focused on getting the deal done. And the seeds for this particular transaction were sowed at least 12 months earlier than that, meaning that it has taken at least 2 years from start to finish, and even this wouldn’t have been possible without the trusted relationships developed over many years by our local business partners in Guangzhou.

My experience of leading Australian missions, study tours and delegations to China suggests to me that western businesses and entrepreneurs, hampered by the demands of quarterly reporting, short term cash flow, budgetary constraints and the natural sceptism of trusted advisers, Boards and even spouses, find it very difficult to commit the necessary time, resources and capital to do business in China. Their time horizons are simply too short and, after the initial euphoria dies away, they quickly become disheartened as they face a plethora of unique and unfathomable challenges – cross-cultural nuances, language differences and the confusing and seemingly haphazard thought patterns of their Chinese counterparts. From my experience, they usually give up too early, or run out of money, time and patience.

Its very hard to give general advice on a topic as general and wide-ranging as this, but I hope that some of the following points, drawn from my own experiences, ring true to newcomers as well as experienced China hands:

As Confucius said “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop”. It can sometimes be hard to define the precise meaning of “stop” and “long term” in the context of your Chinese business dealings, but it inevitably takes longer than you might hope and there will be frustration, confusion and dismay along the way. Be prepared for the long haul and enjoy the journey if you can!

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