OPINION: 'Made In New Zealand' businesses, it's time to tap into the Chinese mindset

Illustration by Angela Keoghan
New Zealand has been reaping benefits from the influx of Chinese tourists, Chinese students, Chinese investments in property and business. Kiwis are no doubt more comfortable hanging out in Silicon Valley than Shanghai, but mark my words, over the next 20 years, the landscape of New Zealand business will change significantly. There will be more Chinese owners, in a wider spread of businesses.

New Zealand has been reaping benefits from the influx of Chinese tourists, Chinese students, Chinese investments in property and business.

Martin Aircraft (of Martin Jetpack fame) has sold out significantly to the Chinese, so did Fisher & Paykel and Goodman Fielder

And while our media continues to draw attention to the ill effects of allowing foreigners, especially the Chinese, to snap up homes in Auckland, China is a force a small nation ignores at its peril. 

Kiwis are no doubt more comfortable hanging out in Silicon Valley than Shanghai, but mark my words, over the next 20 years, the landscape of New Zealand business will change significantly. There will be more Chinese owners, in a wider spread of businesses. 

It might help to know how the Asian mind works. Here’s a backdrop of what shaped the Chinese.

First came fiefdoms, then dynasties – later crumbling and often corrupt – then a nation torn by the tide of nationalism. The effect was an impoverished China, and many of its citizens left. 

In one or two generations, these expats have spread out all over the world. The Chinese – and I am one of them – know how to survive. We have the best of traits, and the worst of traits.

The best is to be found in our industriousness, our never-say-die philosophy, our ability to stay hopeful even in the darkest nights, and our undying commitment to family, clan, then country. 

Our worst traits can be found in a kind of cockiness acquired over thousands of years, a kind of hubris that can only come from there being over a billion of us. 

Then there’s the fact that many Chinese are unable to see beyond our family’s immediate wants. Our extreme need for material comfort and well-being arises from the poverty and malnourishment faced by our forefathers. 

We are also a race of highly superstitious people. Many of us believe in ghosts, we celebrate the hungry ghost festival – buying paper iPhones, paper houses, paper money, for our ancestors in the netherworld. 

Now how do you get into the business mind of the Chinese? 

First, you have to ask yourself, how far are you willing to move away from a Euro-centric world view of how businesses are run. We Chinese are a people who don’t see things in black and white, but shades of grey. 

That can be an advantage. Get into a tight spot and a Chinese friend may be the one to call upon. He or she will likely have a wide network of useful contacts, if he/she is on your side. 

I recently met a Chinese business woman who went to school in New Zealand, and is now seeking to carve out a niche in the advertising/marketing space for those wanting to sell to the Chinese.

Her father runs a large wholesale business; an influential man in their local community in China. When one of her Kiwi clients had a shipment of goods stranded at a Chinese dock due to incorrect paper work, her dad pulled major strings to release them.

This sums up how far Chinese people can go towards helping someone – even if they don’t know them. The Chinese have karmic debt-like ties that are intricately bound. 

The Chinese view things in a relational way. Psychologist Richard Nisbett tracked Chinese and American students’ eye movements when they looked at a picture (of a train, a tiger in a forest and an airplane with mountains in the background).

The study, published in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last August, found the Chinese tended to look at the objects back and forth, and flick between main objects and the background, focusing on the background longer than the Americans. 

So a Kiwi sitting down to cut a business deal has to see a relational world view as the overarching philosophy.

Anyone who jets into Shanghai expecting to close a deal after a few visits will be disappointed. The Chinese will approach you like a tiger his prey, sniffing, waiting for an opportune moment. He will toy with you until he is certain you can be trusted. Learn to posture, and dance along.

Also, the Chinese won’t give you a big project just because you are a Xero, or an Orion, or a Microsoft. In fact, if you are a Xero you should be worried in China because there is someone there with the audacity to think, “I can be a Xero too” and he will give it a shot. 

Take China’s rising star, a phone company called Xiaomi, modelled on Apple’s iPhone. Apple is truly afraid of Xiaomi.

One last word: New Zealand-Chinese relations are quite rocky on many levels. Although mainland Chinese who come to do business here see New Zealand as something special, don’t be fooled into thinking the attachment is absolute.

There is a Cantonese saying that goes something like, “If it doesn’t work out in the east, try the west” or vice versa. The Chinese won’t be losing sleep if they drop some deals here. ⋅