Probably the most common factor in the mistakes I’ve seen people make in China is them trusting the first person they met that happened to speak their language. This is more common with Japanese who go to China and meet somebody who speaks Japanese and then goes on to be their best friend introducing them to people who can do anything and solve all their problems. Hah!
Imagine you are in a room of 100 people, all equally qualified to do a certain task, or to introduce you to other people, but only one of the 100 speaks your language. Who are you more likely to end up speaking with, working with, and trusting? Yes, that one person. Now, what is the chance that out of the 100, he or she was the best qualified for the job? 1% if you are naive enough to believe that they were there by chance, or somewhere below zero if you’d seen it happen as many times as I have.
Still, it’s not difficult to understand. You are in a room with a group of people all smiling at you and giving you business cards you can’t read, and there is this single person standing next to you explaining who is who and what they do. Of course, this is the person you ask, and your instinct is to trust them. What would you do without them? The answer is: probably a lot better!
There are a great number of Chinese people that make their livings by introducing unsuspecting foreign investors (that is what they like to call us) to people that can solve their problems. These problems can range from buying a simple commodity to getting your visa extended. There is always a cost, and your new friend always gets a commission. You, on the other hand, are highly unlikely to have been introduced to the best person for the job, and will certainly be paying much more than necessary for the goods or service. In all probability, you were introduced to the person willing to pay your friend the highest commission. The quality of the goods or the level of service is quite irrelevant.
The best way to avoid this is to use an interpreter. That way you can speak with all the100 people, and deal with the person you choose—the person that you feel is best qualified for the job. But, be careful: there are also many interpreters that are really just there for the commission as well, so suspect everything, ask lots of questions, and be as careful as you can. Finding a good (trustworthy) interpreter is probably the first and most important thing to do when arriving in China to do business.
Hint: The good interpreter that you can trust is NOT likely to be the cheapest you can find. The cheaper ones often have supplementary income in the form of commissions, bringing you back to the top of this page!