Two such books are John Chan's China Streetsmart, and Scott Seligman's China Business Etiquette, newly reprinted to catch the wave. Of the two, Chan's has more hands-on applicability, Seligman's more philosophical depth.
Both authors have extensive experience in this market. John has worked in China since 1993 in marketing roles for firms including Foster's and Beck's beers and Asia Online. Scott started out as Beijing rep of the US-China Business Council in the early 1980s and helped found China's first PR company in 1986 with Burson-Marsteller and Xinhua News Agency.
The problem with books like this is that trying to sum up Chinese culture in 200 pages is simply not do-able, and also not necessary. China is both ridiculously simple and hopelessly complex. "The biggest secret of doing business in China is – there is no secret; it is just plain common sense," says one businessman in Chan's book.
That's true. People are people everywhere, and the same fundamental rules apply: show respect, consider the interests of your opposite number, insist on basic legal safeguards, clearly assess risk versus potential … these rules are not just for China.
But China definitely has its special complexities. There are nuances and angles to this culture that need highlighting for the newcomer. Karaoke is an example, even if the craze is now thankfully past its peak: Westerners make the error of thinking that karaoke has something to do with music. It does not.
And so the "guanxi" word appears. Some books try to make it seem as if guanxi is a mysterious, uniquely Chinese phenomenon. It is nothing of the sort. Every successful business relationship anywhere in the world involves an equivalent of karaoke: a beer, a dinner, a round of golf. It's the same.
But China is unique, no doubt about it. Foreigners who barge in here and operate according to New York rules will probably fail. On the other hand, the "China is a mystery wrapped in a riddle" line is becoming less relevant all the time. "The truth is, being Chinese is coming more and more to imply incorporating some formerly Western, and now increasingly universal, values, attitudes, and practices," says Seligman. It's a toss-up.
Chinese Business Etiquette, by Scott Seligman, Warner Books, 304 pages, US$10.49 on Amazon.com
China Streetsmart, by John L. Chan, PEARSON Prentice Hall, 320 pages, US$35 on Amazon.com