Many Western businessmen new to China are advised of the importance of gift giving to Chinese culture, business or otherwise. But why is this so important to Chinese people? And how is giving a gift different to corruption or bribery?
China’s culture is steeped in Confucianism, which is based largely on respect, relationships and rituals with the intent of maintaining social and family harmony.
To maintain their relationships with their family, friends and co-workers, Chinese feel the need to demonstrate their care and respect. This can take the form of giving a gift when invited to someone’s house or company, as well as picking up the bill when dining with friends or business colleagues.
Additionally, outside of one’s immediate circle of friends and family, this practice is also used as a way of requesting or giving thanks for favours done.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A GIFT AND A BRIBE
Giving a gift also has a strong connection with giving someone ‘face’. When dining with friends or business contacts, the act of picking up the bill allows a person to demonstrate their respect and enthusiasm. This not only creates ‘face’, but also acts to strengthen the relationship between the two or more parties.
There is a key difference between this type of gift giving and the traditional bribe. The goal of a regular gift is to demonstrate your respect for an individual and your commitment to creating or maintaining a relationship with them.
Giving the gift will not show that a deal has been struck. However, not presenting a gift may make you appear impolite and uncultured. In contrast, a bribe in China is often a specific sum of hard currency within a red envelope.
Other common forms of bribery within China take the form of company stock, cuts of profits, and expensive gifts, such as cars, luxury watches and high-end electronics. In the case of an actual bribe, an individual may demand (directly or indirectly) that something be given in order to ensure a certain outcome.
However, the exact difference between a ‘gift’ and a ‘bribe’ can remain unclear within the rather oblique Chinese business environment, and it is not uncommon for companies to set limits on the value of gifts that can be given or received.
RECIPROCAL GIFTS AS OBLIGATION
There is also the potential for the concepts of gift giving to cause worry and stress for the Chinese themselves, and even damage relationships. This is because of the tradition of guanxi (trusting relationships) and obligation.
When someone is treated to dinner, it is expected that the kindness will be returned at some point in the future. When a Chinese couple receives a gift from a friend for their child, not only will they feel compelled to buy a gift for their friend’s child, but they will also take care to give a gift of at least an equal value to the one received.
If a business client feels that they have not received an appropriate gift, or if no gift is given, then this has the potential to damage the relationship.
For the Westerner doing business in China, while it is not necessary to observe these practices as strictly as the local Chinese, it is recommended to pay more attention to close Chinese friends, important business contacts, and anyone within the government bureaucracy that has the power to make your life or business difficult.
Remember, giving a gift it not always a bribe. Often it is a method for building and maintaining a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.
Sometimes, due to the official policy tightening the rules on gift giving, there may be times when a gift will not be accepted. Should you find yourself in this situation, graciously say you understand and withdraw the gift. Smaller, less expensive items will not be seen as a bribe.
GIFTS AND FESTIVALS
This is especially true of gifts associated with festivities in the Chinese lunar calendar, such as Chinese New Year. Participation in festivals, partnership or project launches (with a traditional Lion Dance), Lantern Festivals and so on is a highly recommended way to show respect for Chinese culture and build relationships.
Employers are expected to give employees lucky red packets at Chinese New Year with freshly minted banknotes, for example, preferably in pairs for good luck. Members of your local Chinese team, business partners and legal advisers can assist with questions of the size of the gift.
This is true of other aspects of gift giving, reciprocal business entertainment and family celebrations such as birthdays and weddings of Chinese colleagues, clients and employees.
If you keep in mind your own country’s laws about bribery and corruption, as well as China’s increasingly strict application of laws concerning luxury gifts and corruption, gift-giving can be a respectful and inclusive means to build good business relationships in China.
Have you had difficulties with giving a gift in China? How did you resolve them? Please share your comments in the box below.
If you want to know more about the kind of gifts to give, and also to not give, as well as the etiquette of gift giving in China, see How to Give Business Gifts in Asia and Gift Giving Etiquette in China Business at DavidClivePrice.com.
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