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Working in China and Europe

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 5/2022 vom 27.04.2022


Artikelbild für den Artikel "Working in China and Europe" aus der Ausgabe 5/2022 von Business Spotlight. Dieses epaper sofort kaufen oder online lesen mit der Zeitschriften-Flatrate United Kiosk NEWS.
In Shanghai, social connections help bridge cultures


After more than 40 years of unparalleled growth and transformation, China is the world’s rising economic superpower and, since 2020, the EU’s biggest trading partner. Culturally, of course, it is very different to Europe. Does this also apply to the workplace? We speak to two people with experience of both cultures to find out.

JOHANNA HEINZMANN, 34, was born near Heidelberg, Germany, and studied business administration combined with Chinese studies at university. This included a semester at Beijing University. She worked at the German Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and Tianjin from 2017 until the end of 2021. She’s currently back home on maternity leave.

Nick Li, also 34, was born in Wuxi, a city of about 6.5 million people, just west of Shanghai. His international studies degree included a year of study in Bad Honnef, Germany. After university, he worked at ...

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... Huawei Technologies in Germany as an account manager. Now, he’s in a more senior role with a US semiconductor company in Munich.

How does working in your new country compare to back home?

Johanna: The biggest difference is the style of working. In China, it’s much more fast-paced compared to Germany, and you notice this when you start working. Even though I worked for the German chamber, I still noticed that. Also, business life overlaps with private life. In China, you normally work with WeChat, which is like a combination of WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and other social media apps. You can do everything with it: you can communicate, buy bus or train tickets, make reservations and pay for meals in restaurants. Business people and clients often communicate on WeChat rather than email, but this means you’re expected to be accessible all the time. On some weekends and holidays, I put an out-of-office sign on my WeChat, even though it’s not normal to do that in China.

“In China, work is much more fast-paced compared to Germany”

Nick: In Europe, you don’t mix your private and working life as much as we do in China. Here, you can socialize with colleagues if you want to, but people respect your private life and family time. In China, that’s not always an option.

Here, you have to work very professionally, but you also get more support in your job from colleagues and your boss. And you get a lot of benefits — if you have a permanent contract — like 30 days’ paid holiday. We don’t normally get this much in China. The most I’ve ever heard of is 15 days.

How important is a personal network (guanxi) in China?

Nick: Your guanxi reflects a different view of relationships. Particularly if you’re working in big cities, like Shanghai or Beijing, you have to establish social connections.

“With better connections, you’ll have a better chance of getting promoted”

In Europe, you spend most of your time focusing on your work rather than on your network. In China, you’re still expected to work hard, but you also need to build good relationships — not only with your colleagues but also with people in higher management. The idea is that with better connections, you’ll have a better chance of getting promoted.

Johanna: When I’m in China, I feel like I’m on duty round the clock. I needed some time to get used to this. Of course, we also socialize in Germany, and you might have colleagues who are also friends. In China, you’re expected to hang out with your colleagues much more often. I sometimes have the impression that it’s actually all about business — especially working at the chamber, because your real resources are all those relationships and contacts. Your guanxi network of contacts is the basis for your work and business. It takes a lot of time to set up and you need to think about it from the very beginning, as soon as you start working in China.

How did you become interested in living or working in another country?

Johanna: After I finished school, I started to realize how interesting China is because of all the development going on there. Given its economic growth, I knew it would be a very important global player — not only economically, but also politically. For me, I made the decision to study Chinese in business school —I combined business administration with Chinese studies at Tübingen University, which has a big Chinese faculty. Then I went to Beijing University in 2009 for my semester abroad. It was my first visit to China, and I really liked it.


A trip to a foreign country is always a learning experience. Here are a few tips on Chinese etiquette:

1. Dress well and conservatively This signals two things that are important in Chinese culture: status and modesty.

2. Follow the order of seniority Seniority is also important. Most Chinese show respect to leaders and elders more openly than is typical in the West. At a conference or dinner table, for example, senior business people generally choose their seats first. Allow your Chinese host to show you where to sit.

3. Don’t bow Bowing to others is common in some Asian countries, like Japan and Thailand. It’s not necessary in China — although greetings do involve a lot of nodding and smiling.

4. Think before giving gifts Any gift should not be too extravagant. (If you’re meeting government officials, it’s best to avoid gifts.) Chocolates or sweets from Europe will be popular. Don’t give one of those traditional green Bavarian hats (nor clocks, watches or chrysanthemums), as these are associated with certain superstitions.

5. Go out to eat Eating is always a social event in China. It’s also where a lot of business gets done and relationships are established. In Chinese restaurants, the host will choose the dishes, which are eaten communally. Try everything, but go slowly (there will be plenty). When you’ve finished, leave a small amount of food on your plate — otherwise, you may be offered more. And don’t stick your chopsticks straight into your bowl, as this is associated with funerals.

Nick: A lot of Chinese universities have international partnership programmes. I chose Germany because of the affordable cost and high quality of education. I joined a study programme that offered three years in China and one year in Germany. This meant I could get a bachelor’s degree that’s also recognized in Germany. When we studied in China, the professors were from Germany and our courses were in English.

What were your early experiences of life in your new country?

Nick: It was a wintry Saturday in December. The thing I remember is the snow — in Wuxi, snow is not common at all. I was one of 13 students from China. After we arrived, we decided to go shopping the next day. We wanted to cook a proper meal. Of course, it was a Sunday morning, we got up early and went to the bus stop. We waited more than half an hour, but no bus came. So, we walked to the supermarket, noticing that there was almost nobody on the street. Nobody had told us that supermarkets would be closed — for us, it was a big surprise to find that in such a big developed European country. In my home town, Sunday is probably the biggest day commercially.

How important was learning the local language?

Johanna: I was very interested in China and knew that language was a key factor, because culturally, so many things are connected to it. On my first trip, I realized that you get closer to the people if you speak their language, and they respect you more.

It was also absolutely necessary to learn Chinese to take control of my daily life. Even in Beijing, many people don’t speak English. Although it’s the capital, it is different to cities like Singapore or Shanghai. Beijing is still very traditional, and speaking Chinese is essential.

Nick: The most challenging part of working in Germany is the language. I find learning German much more difficult than learning English. The hardest thing isn’t going out for dinner or to the supermarket, it’s dealing with government bureaucracy. In Munich, I went to the district administration office, which is also where the immigration office is. I thought the staff might be used to people who can’t speak German well, but they just told me that, as I live in Germany, I should speak German. I felt really sorry and uncomfortable about it, because I understand where they’re coming from.


Your hosts may speak perfect English or German, but knowing a few basic phrases will be greatly appreciated:

● Hello = Nĭ hăo

● Thank you = Xièxiè

● I’m sorry = Duì bùqĭ

● Very good = Hěn hăo

● Goodbye = Zàijiàn

● (Is it) OK? = Hăo ma?

● (It’s) OK! = Hăo!