Managing in China

Working in a Global Powerhouse

Managing in China - Working in a Global Powerhouse

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Find out how to be an effective boss in China.

What comes to mind when you think of working in China? Perhaps you picture city streets crowded with people. Or maybe you consider the challenging language barrier, or the country's incredibly diverse culture.

For many of us, it's a place that can really capture the imagination.

In addition to being the oldest continuous civilization on the planet, China's economy is the fastest growing in the world. It's also the most populated country on the planet, making up almost 20 percent of the global population.

As you might imagine, living and working in such a diverse and different country can be an exciting and challenging opportunity. If you're facing a transfer to China, or you've been assigned a Chinese team to manage, you might be wondering just how to manage people from this unique culture.

In this article, we'll examine what it's like to live, manage, and work in China. We'll cover basic business etiquette, and we'll introduce you to some of the local employment laws.


Bear in mind that this article is a general guide only. China has a very diverse workforce, which varies between different cities and regions. So use your own best judgment, based on the situations you find yourself in.

Language and Culture

In China, the official language is Mandarin, which is spoken by more than 70 percent of the population. However, an additional 202 languages are officially recognized, with Cantonese and Shanghainese the next most common. Note, though, that there's only one written language.

English is relatively widely spoken in Chinese organizations that operate globally. However, it's not so common away from a business environment. In any case, you should make an effort to learn at least some Mandarin (or the relevant regional language) before beginning work with your team. They'll appreciate that you took the time to learn it; and it will also help to ease communications and give you a greater understanding of this diverse and interesting culture. (See our article on Cross-Cultural Communication for more on this.)

China is a very large and diverse country.

It's important to remember that China is a communist country. This means that many of the liberties that people from other cultures may take for granted, such as freedom of speech, aren't allowed.

Keep in mind, too, that the government has been known to censor Internet use, and that they have the power to shut down websites and Internet cafes. Also, because the state controls many aspects of life in China, you'll want to get a good handle on Chinese law – and on what constitutes acceptable behavior – before visiting the country.


Remember that you'll probably need a Visa to visit or work in China. You can get more information on these from the Chinese Embassy in your own country.

Working Hours

There are three categories of working hours in China, as described below:

1. Standard Working Time System

Most organizations in China use the Standard Working Time System.

Under this arrangement, employees are legally restricted to a 40-hour working week, meaning no more than eight hours per day, with Saturday and Sunday usually set aside as rest days. They're allowed to work a small amount of overtime, but this is usually no more than one hour per day. Compensation for overtime is paid at 150 percent of normal salary.

2. Irregular Working Hours System

The Irregular Working Hours System is typically used in organizations that need a more flexible workforce.

Under this system, there is no limit to how much time employees can spend at work.

3. Comprehensive Working Hours System

The Comprehensive Working Hours System is most often found in the transportation industry (including air, sea, and rail transport), and in fishing and telecommunications.

Under this system, employees' hours are calculated weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly (instead of weekly only, as under the Standard System). However, employees can still only work a maximum of eight hours per day.

Annual Leave, Sick Leave, and Dismissals

People who have worked for an organization for more than one year are entitled to paid annual leave. This is usually five days per year.

The sick leave policy in China is very generous by most standards – paying typically 60-90 percent of the employee's salary. People can take a maximum of 3-24 months of sick leave, depending on how long they've been with the organization. People who are on sick leave cannot have their contract terminated.

Be very careful when it comes to dismissing anyone from your team. The labor bureau tends to pressure Chinese companies not to lay off employees unless it's absolutely necessary. As a guide, you'll be required to give 30 days' advance notice to the person concerned, but this may depend on the details of his or her contract.


Thanks to China's long history, you might imagine that its people would have plenty of things to celebrate, and you'd be right!

China has seven national holidays each year, when most people will be off work. These are:

  • New Year's Day – January 1.
  • Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) – Date changes each year (February 16 in 2018, and February 15-21 is a holiday).
  • Quingming Festival – Date changes each year (April 5-6 in 2018).
  • May Day/International Labor Day – May 1 (April 30-May 1 are holidays in 2018).
  • Dragon Boat Festival – Date changes each year for the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (June 18 in 2018).
  • Mid-Autumn Day – Date changes each year (September 24 in 2018).
  • National Day – October 1-3.

The Spring Festival, also called Chinese New Year, is the country's longest and most important holiday. Many businesses close the week before and the week after the main celebrations. It's inadvisable to schedule any meetings or important deadlines during this period.

Because the festival dictates that all Chinese return to their family home, all roads, airlines, buses, and trains are extremely busy at this time; and it's best to avoid any travel during the whole period.

There are also smaller celebrations where people may get a day or a half-day off work. This differs depending on your organization, but check before you schedule any meetings on these dates:

  • International Women's Day – March 8 (All women get a half-day off work).
  • Youth Day – May 4.
  • Children's Day – June 1.
  • Army Day – August 1.

Business Etiquette

Chinese people are very respectful of status, title, age, and hierarchy. Rank should always be respected in business settings.

For instance, the highest-ranking member of your team (in many cases, yourself) will always walk into a meeting first. During meetings or negotiations, the most senior executives will engage in conversation. Subordinates may be called on for information or to clarify points, but unless they're specifically asked, they won't speak up.

Because rank and hierarchy are so strictly respected, it's quite possible that you'll have to make presentations to different groups at different levels in the one organization. Be patient here; this is a normal aspect of working in China. Don't be surprised by delayed decisions or by lengthy, bureaucratic processes.

If someone has a title, like "General" (which can be relatively common in China) use that title in front of their name whenever possible. This shows respect.

Business cards are an essential tool for working in China. Your business card should be printed on both sides; one side in English, and one side in Chinese. Always present your business card to someone using both hands, with the Chinese side facing up.

When you're given a card, look at it closely before you put it away. Also, never put a business card in your wallet (and then in your back pocket). This is a sign of disrespect. Business cards are best placed in a business card holder, and are then stored in a front jacket pocket.

Managing People

In China, family and relationships are considered extremely important. The Chinese culture puts great faith in personal relationships and consequently places great importance on them. This means that, as an outsider, your team might initially view you with some distrust.

You can overcome this with an insider contact; that is, someone already in the organization who can make an introduction and provide your team with a character reference. This personal recommendation will help you develop trust and mutual respect with your team. This can be especially important if you're managing a virtual team.

That said, as a foreigner working in China, you'll automatically be entitled to some deference and respect. But this doesn't mean that your team will trust you right away.

As in Japan, the concept of "saving face" is important to the Chinese. You need to bear in mind that this means that it may be difficult to get honest feedback from your employees, since they'll be unwilling to say anything that could cause you, as their boss, to lose face.

Many younger Chinese people, especially those educated at western universities, are adopting a more westernized attitude towards work. However, you'll likely need to encourage your team to share their opinions with you. Over time, they may begin to feel more comfortable speaking up.

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Of course, this works both ways. Never criticize or provide feedback to one of your team members in front of a group. All feedback should take place on a one-to-one basis and in private. Remember, causing someone to lose face is a serious issue.

Unless you're ready to face some severe consequences, never criticize anyone on your team to your own boss. Keep all feedback "in house" wherever possible.

It's important to realize that because rank is so valued by Chinese people, trying to become friends with higher or lower-ranking colleagues is often simply unrealistic. Be professional with your team, but don't automatically try to become their friend. However, you can be friendly with colleagues who share an equal rank with you. (This will, of course, depend on the people involved, and the organization.)

That said, never put on unnecessary airs at work, no matter what your rank. The Chinese value humility, so don't give the impression that you're more important than those around you. This will quickly lose you the respect of your team and colleagues.

Additional Tips for Managing in China

  • Remember the SARS and Avian Flu epidemics? Because of the increased likelihood of disease spreading in densely-populated major cities, many people wear protective facemasks in public. If you're concerned about illness, it won't be frowned upon if you choose to wear one yourself.
  • Punctuality is extremely important in China. Lateness or cancellation without any notice is viewed as a sign of disrespect and a serious affront. Whenever possible, show up early to meetings and appointments.
  • Gifts, including meals and entertainment, should always be reciprocated. However, keep in mind that Chinese people typically turn down a gift three times before accepting, since this prevents them from appearing greedy. Keep insisting on the gift until they accept. However, don't give a gift, especially an expensive one, in front of others, as this could cause your recipient trouble or awkwardness.
  • Colors have great importance in China. Unless you fully understand their significance, it's best to stick to black and white for all your business material, including presentations. If you need to wrap a gift, choose red paper; red is considered a very lucky color.
  • Chinese people like to keep business and pleasure separate. Never discuss work during a meal or banquet unless your host brings up the topic.
  • Wear conservative business dress, in dark colors, to the office.
  • There are several topics that shouldn't be discussed in China. For instance, Taiwan is a province of China; don't describe it as an independent country. The status of Tibet is another sensitive issue, and it's one that's best avoided.
  • Similarly, be aware that people may be reluctant to discuss issues that might be the subject of normal conversation in other countries.
  • Food and drink are very important in China. Make an effort to sample every dish offered to you, and take part in every toast. Your social and business life will suffer if you don't embrace the importance of food and meals.

Key Points

As the world's largest and fastest growing economy, China poses many opportunities and many challenges to foreign managers.

Before you schedule any meetings or deadlines, check to make sure that dates don't conflict with one of the many holidays and festivals in China.

Remember, rank and hierarchy are widely respected; and your team will likely defer to you in meetings. They'll also expect a professional relationship with you: don't try to befriend lower ranking team members.

Lastly, keep in mind that saving face is extremely important in China. Keep all feedback – whether negative or positive – for one-to-one meetings. Never criticize a member of your team in front of someone else.