Before I go any further with this blog, I have to get this new development off of my chest.
I have been looking for two very close friends from China for the past three months or so, with little luck. One of them, Yao Wei, is an artist from Chongqing. He did not have a permanent address when I knew him eight years ago, and he didn't use computers, so no email. I had a phone number, but the last time I called him he was about to board a plane for Henan (island in southern China) for a vacation. I never called him back. That was six years ago.
The other friend was close friends with Yao Wei as well. His name was Tong Zhihong, and he had a small-ish advertising company in Chongqing. I was hoping to reach either of them, but when I got to China I found out that all cel phone numbers had grown by one digit. His did not work. I started searching online for Soltong Advertising Company, but to no avail, since I don't know the Chinese characters for the company. Then the receptionist came in to ask me for help translating to someone that the other computer in the business center was broken and mine the only one available. I asked her if she could help me read some of the names of these advertising companies online that I had found, since I couldn't understand all of the characters. She thought it odd that I was researching Chongqing advertising companies online, and asked me why I was looking. I told her I was trying to get in touch with a guy I hadn't talked to in nearly nine years, and she said "well why don't you just call information?"
So she helped me look up the city code for Chongqing and even spoke with the information operator for me (in China, you are still met with a live person when you call information). They said they had a Soltong advertising company and gave me the number. When I called it I got a woman who informed me that everyone was out for the day because it is Mid-moon festival, but that he would be back tomorrow, probably. I am going to call again later and leave a cel-number for him to call.
Other than that, we are now in Suzhou. We went from Beijing the day after the Forbidden City tour and headed for Hangzhou for a few days, where we got to talk to Brian Li, one of the higher-ups at Alibaba, which is a large Chinese website that specializes in Ebay-type transactions and also has an English version of the site where people can find companies in China looking to export product to the states. One of the students, Ryan Chin, exports home furnishings from China and sells them on ebay in the states. He uses Alibaba almost exclusively to source his clients. We have been having a lot of discussions about how to do this type of business and whether or not I might be able to find a niche market in which to work.
Ryan had a lot of very interesting questions for Brian, and Brian gave us as many answers as he could. Ryan believed that Alibaba should have a rating system like ebay does, so that importers and exporters could more easily research one another's records. The other thing that Ryan thought might be useful was to have more services available, like escrow services, information on customs and logistics companies. Brian seemed to agree that Alibaba needs to have a better way to allow potential business partners to feel each other out, but it had not yet happened. He did not think that Alibaba was poised to move in the direction that Ryan was suggesting, but I felt, along with most in the class I'm sure, that Ryan's points were extremely valid and that by expanding their services, Alibaba could potentially take over a larger share of the market. Alibaba, Brian explained, is trying to figure out what Chinese consumers want and how to get them using the web site more often and for longer periods and for more things (instant messaging, information search, news, etc.) than with competitors. Brian explained that the online industry and web-site competition is not limited by country, but by language. We might not have the slightest idea who Alibaba, Baidu and tencent are, but there are huge battles for market share going on in China right now between these three giants in the Chinese web site industry.
One of the things that was brought up during the Alibaba discussion was the idea of guanxi and whether or not it affects the way people do business online in China. Brian seemed confused by the question, and unlike nearly every other company we met with, he didn't think guanxi had anything to do with how people do business in China anymore, and seemed to feel that this had died out 2o years ago.
But after listening for awhile, I think I understood what Brian was talking about. Guanxi really has a few different connotations. It is a broad word that means "relationships" in a high-context society where very little can be said verbally and volumes communicated by the way in which those words were spoken. Guanxi as Brian was understanding it was the idea that if you know someone and they owe you a favor, they will pull some strings to help you get what you want. Brian said that when dealing with the government, this may sometimes still happen, so he was not surprised that companies like Boeing and Lenovo discussed the importance of maintaining good guanxi with your business partners and with the government. But aside from this type of string-pulling guanxi, there is also the much larger importance placed on building relationships. Cory Grenier at Lenovo pointed out that if an American arrives in China on a Saturday to do business on Monday with a Chinese company, he will be met at the airport by the highest ranking official at the company that can make the time to come, he will be taken by private company car to a restaurant for lunch and treated for the whole day as a very welcome relative. There will bar dinner, karaoke, walks in the park, etc. The whole trip will be set up. When a Chinese person arrives in the states on a Saturday, this will not be done. They might even have to take a cab to the hotel, where they will be on their own for the weekend until they have to be in the office for the very cool business meeting on Monday morning.
This is one large difference in how business is done between our two countries. It is something that we will have to pay more attention to as time goes by, or we will risk falling behind as one of China's biggest trading partners.