Everybody, it seems, is talking about China.
That’s especially true if you’re doing business or are part of a tech startup, and are based in Asia Pacific. Whether it’s to access the country’s cheap and efficient production or its growing consumer class, or even to learn from its tech and Internet-enabled industries, there’s a good reason to visit the Middle Kingdom these days.
Problem is, it’s going to be a tough road.
If you come from a country with a language and customs that are highly different from those of China, you’ll need to prepare thoroughly for your trip. That includes brushing up on basic Chinese business etiquette.
But even if you live in a neighbouring country and speak some passable conversational Mandarin, you’ll need to brush up on your skills to make a positive impression on potential business partners, investors, and staff.
With enough research and preparation, you can make sure your first business trip to China goes smoothly. Here are some things you need to know before you go.
1. Entry requirements
Depending on your nationality, you may need more than a month to obtain travel documents to mainland China. This also depends on how long you plan to stay in the country.
For example, residents of Singapore, Brunei, and Japan don’t need a visa to enter China if they stay for 15 days or less.
Holders of other ASEAN passports need to obtain a visa, though. For starters, fill out a visa application form and submit it together with a 48mm x 33mm photo of yourself within the last six months. The photo should show your full face—head uncovered except for religious reasons—against a light background. You’ll also need to present your day-to-day itinerary, as well as reservations for your airline ticket and accommodation.
If it’s your first time to apply for a Chinese visa, you will be asked to present financial documents, such as your most recent income tax return form, proof of income and employment, and your bank statement for the last three to six months.
If applying for a business visa, you’ll also need to present relevant documents, such as your invitation to a trade fair or an invitation letter from your trade partner.
Call or visit the Chinese embassy in your country to find out more information about the process and requirements needed to apply for a visa or entry permit to mainland China.
2. Major Chinese holidays to avoid
Sure, it seems more relaxing to travel during a local holiday, when the trains aren’t jam-packed with rush-hour traffic. But some holidays last for days and draw millions of locals to train stations and airports. Aside from that, businesses shut their doors or operate at half-capacity during some of these holidays, which means you won’t be able to get much done in the way of business.
Avoid these holidays if you’re planning a business trip to China:
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is arguably one of the busiest holidays in the country, with Chinese from overseas and in the country’s urban areas returning to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. Plenty of businesses completely shut down during this period.
While the official holiday is two days—February 5 to 6 this year—Chinese from around the world and from across the country begin travelling home as early as a month in advance. In 2018, Chinese New Year travellers were estimated to have made three billion trips in a little over a month.
Held on the first week of October, this seven-day government-mandated public holiday—also known as Golden Week—is celebrated throughout the country. Expect tourists and citizens alike to be travelling to popular tourist destinations and clogging up the city streets. Don’t expect to be able to reach plenty of suppliers, as companies will be closed for the entire week.
Qingming Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Day
This Chinese holiday occurs usually occurs on April 4 or 5 and is a day for the Chinese to pay respects to their ancestors. Expect citizens to flock to train stations and airports to return to their hometowns during this holiday.
Traffic congestion aside, consider that this is an inauspicious day to ink business deals, given its link to death.
3. Prepaid network and pocket WiFi rental
If purchasing a local SIM card, you can choose from the three major Chinese mobile carriers—China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicorn. On the other hand, you can simply rent a pocket WiFi router for the duration of your trip. These are available at automated kiosks at international airports.
To break through China’s great firewall to access sites like Facebook and Google, though, sign up for a VPN (virtual private network) service and install it on your phone before you arrive in the country.
4. Data collection for Airbnb guests
As part of its efforts to legalise the sharing economy, China now requires Airbnb guests to submit their details to government agencies.
If staying at an Airbnb property, you must submit a temporary residence registration form to the local Public Security Bureau, along with your passport or identification information, within 24 hours of your arrival. You need to submit these requirements within 72 hours of your arrival if you’re staying in a rural area.
Plus, if you’re not a resident of mainland China and you confirm a booking on the app, Airbnb China will store, use, and process the following information:
- Your name, phone number, and email address
- Booking dates
- Messages between you and the host
- The names, nationality(ies), passport/national ID details and passport expiry date(s) of all guest(s) staying in the listing, including yourself
5. Basic Mandarin phrases
Ever conversed with a foreigner in your home country and found that he or she tried to speak your language? If so, you probably appreciated the effort, even though the delivery was far from perfect.
Likewise, learning a few key Mandarin phrases not only helps you get around but also shows respect to the people you meet with.
Try out a few of these phrases:
Zen me cheng hu nin (How should I call you?)
Since you are meeting people in formal settings, it would be polite to use this phrase as an alternative to asking, “What’s your name?”
Qing wen (Excuse me, may I ask...)
Learning the phrase Qing Wen is especially helpful since you are not familiar with your environment. From asking where a government building is to inquiring about the process of getting a business permit, the polite way of starting a question would be to use Qing Wen.
Yi qi chi fan, wo qing ke (Let’s go and eat together, my treat)
A meal is an essential part of establishing business relationships in China. Use this phrase to offer to treat someone out to lunch or dinner.
Ni xin ku le (Thank you for your hard work)
Use this appreciative phrase to help establish goodwill and maintain a positive relationship with your Chinese colleagues or staff.
Of course, there are more phrases you need to learn. While there are plenty of lists of Mandarin phrases for business online, you probably won’t remember them all. That brings us to the next point.
6. How to find a translator
Chances are, you speak little to zero Mandarin, and you don’t personally know anyone in China to help you get around. Your business partner may or may not speak English, and your rusty Mandarin may prevent you from negotiating favourable terms.
In times like these, it’s best to hire a translator.
Various agencies and listing websites help you find translators or interpreters who can accompany you on your business trip to China. Some sources include:
- The Chinese embassy website
- Your own country’s embassy
- The International Association of Conference Interpreters in China
- Your country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (or its equivalent)
- Online directories
When choosing a translator, ask for their profile and experience in interpreting for business travellers, not just tourists.
Preparing for a successful trip
Your first business trip to any country will always be daunting, so it’s important to do thorough research. Ask advice from colleagues or friends who may have visited the country. Read online forums to learn about other people’s experiences. Read up on local news in your destination country.
If you prepare for your trip as best as you can, you’ll increase your chances of success in a foreign country.