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Final thoughts: moving from basic to intermediate cultural fluency

Doing business both successfully and more ethically in China is not just a matter of understanding our three-part framework of Context-First, Interconnectedness, and Awareness, plus the twin phenomena of face and gudnxi. Success requires putting these into practice by adapting to the various concrete situations in which we find ourselves—what we call Ethical Agility. Roughly, this amounts to having the intellectual and emotional fluidity not only to recognize a different ethical system for what it is, but to navigate that system effectively.

In this chapter, we connected Ethical Agility with face to the all-important process of cultivating and maintaining relationships in Chinese business contexts. Fluency with these relationships allows Western businesspeople to exercise influence through those relationships, and through the networks in which Chinese counterparts participate. This is Ethical Agility with guanxi, perhaps the most famous (or notorious) challenge for Westerners doing business in China. We discussed what happens when guanxi is misapplied; when it is expertly applied, as in the Apple case; and when it is wholly missing, as in the NBA case.

We are not suggesting that Westerners can develop perfect skill in guanxi— after all, many Chinese folks make mistakes in guanxi. There is neither a presumption nor an expectation of perfection; one is still a foreigner. Any sincere effort combined with moderate familiarity with Chinese culture, customs, and language go a long way towards opening the door to the more sustained relations that we have explained how to cultivate and maintain. A modicum of Agility with relationships and guanxi is necessary to avoid classic pitfalls of doing business in China, such as deals suddenly falling apart or ending up with unfavorable contracts. Moreover, Agility with relationships and guanxi is the number-one way to increase transparency and accountability, and, in doing so, further reduce the chances that a problem will boil over into a disaster, while improving cooperation with your firm when crises do occur.

A central theme of this book has been that fluency or Agility in traditional Chinese culture and ethics does not mean “going native" and abandoning your core ethics and business goals. Instead, we have argued, Agility in face and guanxi can in certain instances constitute the most effective way to achieve ethical and business objectives. We have put this claim to the test in some of the most challenging ethical issues foreign business encounter in China—protecting intellectual property, assuring safety and quality in the manufacturing supply chain, and human rights. In the next and final chapter, we go beyond the basic concepts of face and guanxi and dive more deeply into other important aspects of traditional Chinese ethics. Unlike face and guanxi, however, the ideas we discuss in the next chapter are less familiar to most business businesspeople in China. Nonetheless, as we shall see, they are an important part of the Chinese ethical mindset and form a backdrop to contemporary Chinese business.

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