If you think that alcohol and business don’t go together, perhaps you’d better stay away from China. They don’t only go together; I’d go so far as to say, “no alcohol, no business”. While the concept of discussing business or just getting to know people during dinner and a drink may be commonplace in many countries, China takes it a step further.
My first visits to China were as a member of a group of businessmen from Japan invited to see various cities in China, and be encouraged to “invest” in their cities, which each had their attractions and carefully-named “development zones”.
Typically, our group would consist of half a dozen members, and we would be greeted by high-ranking officials from the local municipality, managers of the development zones, local businessmen involved in international trade, and various other bodies to fill the room and totally outnumber us. At first, it seemed as though this was all part of the VIP treatment that we normally received, which often also included police escorts into town through red lights and all. But, first impressions can be deceiving, especially in China . . .
So, the first morning, after taking a tour of a (partially developed) development zone, we would be invited (taken!) to lunch with a dozen or so local people. They would range from factory managers to the mayor. In addition to the beer (served cold if we were lucky), we would be treated to the local variety of white spirit (baijiu). This ranges in alcoholic content from about 35% to 75%, and in taste from bad to worse.
The tradition, if that’s what you call it, or custom is for each person on the visiting side of the table to drink a glass of this local spirit with everybody on the welcoming side of the table. Remember, that’s six of us and at least twelve of them. Yep, it’s an us and them game! Competitive drinking at its worst. With six of us, and twelve of them, it means that for every “round” of drinks, we each get to drink twelve glasses, and they each get to drink six. If that doesn’t sound fair, it is only later that you learn how they are often only drinking water or tea, while you are being treated to the local 55% alcohol fire-water. And, it’s still just lunchtime!
After another tour of a port, or maybe a two-hour seminar (a good place for a sleep) with impossible-to-comprehend literature (they tell it’s been translated into your language, but . . .), you get 30 minutes in your hotel room before the dinner starts at about 6:30 pm.
Dinner is usually a selection of the best the region can offer. This can range from sea cucumbers, scorpions, and fried insects to things you can’t recognize but don’t have the courage to ask about. And, yes, of course, the drinking. It is basically the same as at lunch but with the volume turned up: bigger glasses and more toasts.
After dinner, you are typically taken drinking at a local karaoke establishment where you are looked after by young ladies that speak your language. There, the normal beverage is warm beer.
● Why drink that much?
Well, they don’t drink so much as make sure that their guests do. There are varying reasons given for this, but the most convincing to date is that people tend to reveal their true selves when they are somewhat inebriated, and the Chinese like to see the true person, flaws and all, before they even consider doing business with them. Another reason given, which I have experienced myself numerous times, is that they will ask the same question several times from different angles. At first it seems as though they are either stupid or forgetful, but they are not. They are calculative, smart, and relatively sober! They will ask you about a date. When that was, how old you were then, how many years ago it was, how old you are now, etc. They are, of course, making sure that the answers you gave at lunchtime, before you started drinking, and after you are suitably pickled are all the same. Not a problem, as long as you are telling the truth.
● How to avoid drinking
Basically, you can’t. Unless you tell them the very first time you meet them that you do not drink—cannot drink—any alcohol, you will be socially obliged to drink “just a little”, and that soon escalates into “just too much”. Even taking a sip for the first toast is enough to let them know that you can drink if you want to.
Not drinking is an option, as is stopping when you feel you have had enough. However, you should be aware that refusing their drinks is tantamount to refusing their business.
I’d also warn you to beware of the young ladies from the local municipal offices that are brought along as your interpreters. It is quite often that they will not be able to finish their glass of whatever is being drunk at the time and you, as a gentleman, will be expected to drink it for them. It isn’t unusual for these interpreters to ask for red wine as they “really don’t like the baijiu” (as if any of us do!), and then just take a sip leaving you to finish the glass of wine after your warm beer and baijiu.
On the brighter side, while it may take several years and a lot of honesty on both sides, once you become more than just prospective business partners, the amount of alcohol decreases dramatically, and it is not uncommon for Chinese officials to only request tea at lunch meetings explaining that they have to drink with “new people” that evening.
All in all, I’d say that the Chinese tend to look at people and ask themselves if they can do business with them in ten years time. Whereas as the Japanese tend to look at people and try to calculate the profit from the deal on the table.
Just different policies and different cultures, but here I think I prefer the Chinese way of thinking. Just their way of thinking in the long term, not their choice of alcohol!