Many Chinese people speak English quite well, certainly far better than the rest of us speak Mandarin. English is now taught in most schools in China, and something I find quite interesting is that the Chinese learn to read English before they learn to speak English. This can lead to a variety of endearing mispronunciations. “Digital” can become “dig-it-all.” “Goose” can become “juice.” And, perhaps my favorite one, “doubts,” can become “dough bits.”
“Dough bits” first came up when I was at a small signing ceremony in Changzhou. A new Chinese partner handed me a pen and said, “Before you sign, please tell me, do you have any dough bits?” I didn’t know what he meant. I looked at my translator, but she didn’t know either. “It’s your language,” she shrugged. Since I had no dough bits, and since I very much wanted to sign the deal, I said, “No, sir, I have no dough bits.” I signed my name, and then stamped it with my “chop” as if pounding a raw steak.
Little Airplane is now working on a few projects in China, including Super Wings! with Chinese toyco Alpha, and P. King Duckling with UYoung Media for Disney Junior US. Although Little Airplane is still based in New York, we’re now a bilingual company, and about a third of our staff speaks Mandarin or Cantonese. Last week was the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the talk around the office was of mooncakes.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on China, and I agree with Pieter Bottelier from Johns Hopkins who famously said, “Anyone who speaks with any certainty about China needs their head examined. ” But I do believe there are a few things I’ve learned about China that may be helpful to anyone making their first foray into this unique market:
1) Don’t ask what China can do for you, ask what you can do for China. Many Western companies view China as a big piggy bank that they want to bust open and loot. The Chinese, of course, know this as they have a long history of barbarians trying to plunder their population in various ways. After all, these are the folks who built both the Great Wall and the Great Firewall. If China can survive without Google, Netflix and Facebook, they can certainly survive without your show and your toys. If you really want to do some business in China, always try to see yourself through the eyes of the Chinese. Then ask yourself, “What can I do to help them with their goals?” Only then will they even begin to consider your goals.
2) There are no one-night stands in China. In the West, projects and partnerships often proceed very quickly. Not so in China. The Chinese are not interested in fast one-off deals of any kind. If they are going to consider getting into bed with another company, it will be for a long-term relationship. This courtship requires time and patience. China has been around for 8,000 years, so they can certainly wait another six months to sign your deal. I sometimes get the feeling that the Chinese like to see how you’ll behave while you’re waiting. Will you be impatient? Will you get angry? Both are very clear signs of weakness. And who wants to get into bed with someone who is weak?
3) Go there often. There is a long and steady parade of companies who make one or two trips a year to China and believe this is enough face time to build real trust and real business. And there are other companies who rely on high-priced consultants to make “introductions” and hold their hands in Beijing for a few days of meetings and dumplings. In my view, the only way to really build trust with the Chinese is to go there frequently, speak honestly, and demonstrate to your prospective partners that you’re not just on a misbegotten quest for pirate’s booty. If you don’t go often, if you don’t stay in touch between visits, and if you don’t at least try to learn a little Mandarin, then you are sending the signal that your time is more valuable than theirs. And it’s not. After all, the Chinese economy grew 7% last year. Did yours?
China is not a closed society, but it is a careful society. In order to understand the caution with which the Chinese view international guests, media, and partnerships, you must first appreciate that China has a long history of mistreatment by foreign powers. The Chinese still sting from their “Century of Humiliation” that ended just after World War II, a period that was marked by imperialism and brutal invasions by both Japanese and Western forces.
I travel a lot, and I believe no people on earth have bigger hearts than the Chinese. But history has taught them to protect their hearts – and their wallets – from clever outsiders. If you really want to work with China, if you really want to create opportunities here, you must first show the Chinese something far more important than your ratings, your toy sales, and your Emmys. You must show the Chinese people what they deserve: your respect.
On this issue, I have no dough bits.
Josh Selig is one of MIPBlog’s pre-MIPCOM/MIPJunior Ambassadors – check out all of their posts here – who are coordinated by consultant Debbie Macdonald. Selig will also speak on MIPCOM’s closing Trending Topics panel, October 20 (full session details here).
Photo: Hangzhou, China, the city due to become the home to MIP China Hangzhou, the first ever MIP in China, next May. More info here… (© iStock/Getty Images)