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Understanding local culture is crucial to success

By Alywin Chew | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-09 09:57
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China Daily reporter Alywin Chew. [Photo provided to China Daily]

What stands out most at the China International Import Expo is the sheer size of the event. My immediate takeaway from walking through the sprawling exhibition was this-everyone wants a piece of the Chinese market.

This reminded me of the time when I had just moved to Shanghai and some of my friends back home in Singapore were urging me to set up a business in China.

"And what would I sell?" I asked a friend. He replied: "It doesn't matter. Anything will do. How about lighters? Even if just 1 percent of the population buys lighters for a dollar, you'll be rich."

Ask any of the companies attending the CIIE why they are eager to enter the country and they will, like my friend, point to the massive market.

I'm sure these enterprises are far more informed than my friend, but it is still worth noting at this point that China's size is merely a guarantee of opportunities, and not success. Just look at the major foreign companies such as eBay, Home Depot, Uber and Groupon that have entered China in the past few decades. All of them left the arena bruised and battered.

While companies can now rely on statistics, big data and new technologies to forge better marketing strategies, there is one thing about the country that even the most intelligent of machines cannot help them with-understanding local culture.

And this is exactly what many industry observers have cited as the main reason why companies bow out of the Chinese market.

Indeed, as a foreigner myself, I can attest to how cultural understanding is imperative if you want to thrive in China. It would be naive to enter the country expecting things to work the way you are used to back home.

But once you get past the inevitable culture shock and come to terms with the differences in societal norms, the similarities China shares with the rest of the world become a little more obvious.

The foreign CEOs, entrepreneurs and chiefs I have interviewed over the years share the same sentiment-someone who has never lived in China has his or her perception largely shaped by the narrative perpetuated by foreign mainstream media and social media platforms. This inadvertently leads to misconceptions.

China wants to be part of the global conversation, and this historic event in Shanghai underscores its intention to do so.

On Nov 1, the country reduced tariffs on a wide range of industrial products and raw materials. The import expo looks to be yet another step in the process of further opening-up.

Still, some critics have said that the pace of China's opening-up is too slow.

But what is considered slow or inefficient from an outsider's perspective might not necessarily be the same in China.

Here, it could simply be a case of patience.

In the words of Confucius, "It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop."

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