I was raised in the 70s in a city named Dalian in northern China, so I’ve seen with my own eyes how Chinese culture has drastically changed over the last generation. I remember playing on the street outside my apartment after school ended and before dinner was ready. Time and again, my mom would warn me to be mindful of reckless bikes while I played outside. Even just from the surge of cars on the streets, it’s very easy for me to observe that China is an extremely different place today from the country in which I grew up.
The single greatest change in Chinese culture is of crucial importance to American businesses: the fact that China has become a society with low levels of trust.
Chairman Mao died in 1976 when I was 9 years old, officially ending the Cultural Revolution that he launched in 1965. During the long decade of the Cultural Revolution, millions of people in China were violently persecuted. Those identified as spies, “running dogs”, “revisionists”, or coming from a suspect class (including those related to former landlords or rich peasants) were subject to beating, imprisonment, rape, torture, systematic harassment and abuse, property seizure, denial of medical treatment, and erasure of social identity. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, starved, or worked to death. Millions more were forcibly displaced. Young people from the cities were forcibly moved to the countryside, where they were indoctrinated with propaganda teachings of the Communist Party of China.
The Cultural Revolution had massive, long–term impacts on China and its people who understandably lost faith in their government and the humanity of their nation.
Over the next few decades, the Chinese tried to forget the most violent and inhumane characteristics of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, they became increasingly aware of how they were systematically lied to by private enterprises. For example, baby formula factories refused to disclose their ingredients and included dangerous toxins in their products that led to the deaths of hundreds of infants.
But it wasn’t just baby formula factories: companies of all sizes consistently lied to their consumers, and this is why even today the Chinese are so cynical and suspicious about purchasing products. As a China market consultant, I always stress to my clients how important it is for foreign companies to appreciate the skepticism of Chinese consumers. From my years of experience in the Chinese market, I’ve learned that consumers are unmoved by American products that have been well-researched and time-tested until they can see the proof for themselves.
Be prepared to answer a whole host of questions about your company and its history. I remember introducing a 90-year old business owner to a Chinese audience, and a critical participant asked about the organization’s 108 year-old history given the founder’s age. Facts that might be taken for granted by American consumers will be questioned vigorously in China, and it will be necessary to cultivate trust from a low starting point.
That fact that Chinese society has low levels of trust society means that it takes time to cultivate confidence in your product and receive the full commitment of your Chinese partners. It also requires you to have comprehensive answers to all critical questions that come your way, including certifications to support your legitimacy and complete documentation backing up your claims.
Casey W. Xiao-Morris is China Business Consultant at Leverage China, LLC, specializing in capturing China’s market opportunities for American companies. Casey can be reached at cxmorris@LeverageChina.com