Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer who lives in Beijing, and his book, When Yes Means No (or yes or maybe) proves he has been through a few China business negotiations in his time.
The book, subtitled 'How to Negotiate a Deal in China', is divided into 36 small sections, each based on chapters and lessons in the ancient classic Sunzi's Art of War and another text known as The 36 Strategies.
It's not a new idea, but Laurence gives it new life thanks to his deep understanding of the people, the culture, the scams, and how to read the micro-signals.
Each lesson is accompanied by chatty historical references and modern business anecdotes to drive home the point, the point being that Chinese are conditioned from primary school to strategize on a deeper level than most other people – the benefit of 5,000 years of continuous history.
"The stories are all based on fact," Laurence says in the introduction. "They have been written with the intention of providing not only amusement but also some hope when one is left staring out of the window of a business center conference room in a hotel in China, watching the traffic go by and wondering, 'When will they sign?'"
Here is a sample of the Thoughts of Brahm, as wise a comment as I have ever heard in the China trade: "When negotiating in China, the first rule is not to bring your lawyer along. The second is to throw away your MBA text book. The third is to listen to what the other party has to say." There's a lot more like that.
He has a wonderful appendix with nine techniques for avoidance of drinking Maotai, which used to be a big deal in Beijing and is still a hazard at banquets in many places.
Plus a glossary of words and phrases related to China negotiations. "Post-bonding syndrome," for instance, he defines as: Vomiting all the XO and exotic food over one's bed in the hotel room at 3:00 a.m. after a successful bonding session.
Wait, that's not funny. It's reality.
When Yes Means No! (Or Yes or Maybe): How to Negotiate a Deal in China; by Laurence J. Brahm; published by Tuttle; hardcover US$14.00 from Amazon.com
Many CEOs of foreign multinationals still have the days of Kissinger and Zhou Enlai at the back of their minds when they go to China, when what Mao said went, and that was simply all there was to it. They think that the China market can be opened to them as simply as US-China normalization could be had on the back of a handshake between Mao and Nixon. This kind of thinking is, to say the least, fallacious. "If we can obtain a meeting between our company's President and Jiang Zemin, will we be able to get approval for everything we want and open up the China market?" asked one US multinational's Hong Kong manager (who had been supervising his company's activities in China for years). This is a highly unlikely scenario. In fact, the most someone like Jiang Zemin would say to a foreign multinational's CEO would be (and that is under the best of circumstances), "Please come to China to invest. We welcome you investing in China. As long as you invest in accordance with all of China's relevant laws and policies, we will encourage and support your coming to China to invest."
The key catchphrase is, of course, "all of China's relevant laws and policies." You will hear these words when your CEO meets with State leaders. Remember, these words are very important. They mean that you open up the China law books and find out what the policies are. You should then go back to square one and invest in accordance with all the procedures that you are supposed to follow, starting from the ground floor and working your way up. There are no shortcuts available on the back of a photo session with Jiang Zemin.