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Business Networking In China: How Is It Different And Who Will You Meet?

From having dinners together to being introduced to the biggest players in e-commerce, here are some of the ways networking in China can benefit your career

Sun Jan 1 2023

One of the world’s oldest empires, China has enjoyed periods of rapid development and reform in recent years. Now an epicenter of technology and finance, how does commerce thrive in the world's most populous country?

The answer lies in the concept of Guanxi. 

The word stems back from a time back when legal structures were weakened, communities in China had to develop a system whereby they could ensure order between each other. The best way to do this was by building longstanding personal relationships through which a trust (much like opening a gateway) could be established through a feeling of social obligation. This mutual exchange of favors became known as Guanxi. 

Now signified by two Mandarin characters that represent a gate and the verb “to tie”, Guanxi is like the oil that smooths the wheels that spin all business interactions. If you have Guanxi, you are behind the gate. If you don’t, you are outside of it, and you need to get someone to let you in. 

In modern times, this practice manifests itself in a corporate networking landscape that differs quite starkly from that in the West. But in what ways? And how can business students benefit? 

Create long-term personal relationships at business school in China

One of the most crucial aspects of learning how to network in China—or to foster Guanxi—is the ability to establish trust. This can be achieved by gaining a deeper understanding of the culture itself. 

That’s why when the Danish-born founder of Laiba Beverages, Alexander Petersen, chose to study an Antai MBA program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, he was determined to take his classes in Chinese.   

“As a foreigner, I got a much deeper understanding of China and their way of thinking,” he says. 

Unlike in the West, where a lot of corporate networking is done at surface-level events, or formal conferences, in China it’s imperative to engage with business partners on a more longstanding and intimate level.

This can include going for tea, having dinner at each other’s houses, or engaging in activities such as golf. 

Plus, on top of developing a close rapport, another benefit of these social events is that it allows you to grow your network by being introduced to other potentially advantageous partners. 

“I met a lot of amazing people, local Chinese people from Shanghai, a lot of people from Suzhou and from Beijing—it helped me gain a much stronger network that wasn’t just expats,” Alexander says.

He ultimately credits the genuine connections that he was able to build with Chinese people throughout his degree to being able to launch a successful global business

Learn about the world of e-commerce 

Even if you don’t quite have the time to learn the local language, networking in China still comes with a myriad of benefits—not least an exposure to the world’s largest ecommerce market. 

Home to internationally renowned retail giants such as Alibaba and JD, the Chinese online market comprises more than an entire third of the world’s internet sales. Put into monetary terms, that’s over US $2.5 trillion in revenue. 

For Jonathan Ly, who studied for a Global MBA at Peking University Guanghua School of Management, getting to meet top companies was a massive highlight of the program. 

"Studying a Global MBA in China is a great way to learn more about the digital ecosystem in China," he says. 

Jonathan was also fortunate enough to meet Warren Buffett—one of the world’s most successful investors—during a trip to Berkshire Hathaway in the US. 

Now chief of staff to the CEO of Richemont Asia Pacific, the second largest luxury group in the world, Jonathan uses the skills and connections he gained while on his MBA in his day-to-day role. 

As the online sales market only continues to expand in other regions of the world, being able to learn from the Chinese model is an invaluable asset, he says. 

Network in the world’s second-largest economy

One of the best ways to build Guanxi with another client is to be introduced by someone who already has an established a “gateway” of favors—but how do you get to know someone on the inside of the gate in the first place? 

Luckily for business school students in China, a great place to start making these initial connections is by leveraging their school’s alumni network. This can be done through school organized events or by reaching out on their own initiative. 

For example, when Qi Liu embarked upon the Global MBA at Zhejiang University School of Management in the ancient silk-trading hub of Hangzhou, she already had a successful e-commerce business under her belt. 

However, she hoped that by attending the business school network events that the MBA program had to offer, she would be able to explore new entrepreneurial directions in areas such as tech and innovation.

“I got to know more about our excellent alumni and alumni enterprises, I learned a lot,” Qi says. 

As a part of the Global MBA, Zhejiang University not only connects students to alumni industries in Hangzhou, but also to two of China’s financial centers, Shanghai and Shenzhen, allowing students to make the connections necessary to explore new professional directions. 

Business networking in China offers opportunities to not just expand your career, but to enrich your understanding of one of the world’s oldest cultures. 

This article is part of the Study In China series of sponsored content which has been supported by the featured schools.