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The Importance of Reciprocity in Chinese Business Culture


Do you work with the Chinese?

If so, there are some fundamental cultural concepts you need to be aware of.

The Chinese have a certain way of ‘doing business’ which really needs to be understood by foreigners.

Failing to invest time in getting to know the Chinese approach to business, relationships, communication and hospitality, can result in failed ventures, wasted time, delays and even a loss of reputation.

In this article, we are going to be looking at reciprocity and what it means for foreigners working with the Chinese.

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Reciprocity and Chinese Values

Reciprocity, i.e. mutual dependence, action or influence, is one of the key aspects of Chinese culture, not only in business but in life generally.

It is heavily connected to and intertwined with the concepts of Face and Guanxi (see below), both of which are also critical in any understanding of the Chinese.

Many Chinese tend to look at personal relationships as a means to an end, i.e. ‘what am I going to get out of this?’.

Reciprocity almost acts like a glue in a relationship as it bonds people together through an unspoken bartering of favours.

When you have guanxi with someone, you are expected to give and receive favours.

People do each other favours, ask for favours, give gifts and do all sorts of other things in order to pay or repay ‘debts’.

Chinese men playing board game

Guanxi (personal connections) are essential in Chinese culture. From the street to the boardroom.

Learn more about Guanxi here

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

How Does Reciprocity Work?

Simply put, Chinese people tend to keep a track of what they have been given, by who and how much it was worth.

They then feel obliged to repay the same amount back to the giver at some point, in order to balance the scales.

The Chinese New Year is used by many Chinese as the time of year to settle debts and reciprocate favours and good deeds.

So, reciprocity is all about connections between people, getting things done, giving face and ensuring you remain part of a network of influence.

3 Things Foreigners Should Know About Reciprocity

For many foreigners, the idea of reciprocity is a little alien for them as they may not come from cultures that rely on similar means and ways of relationship building.

This can trip some people up and cause problems with the Chinese.

So here are some important points to be aware of.

1. Keep a Balance Sheet

  • Make sure you are always aware of who has given you what, when and how much it was worth.
  • Anything given to you needs to be repaid in kind.
  • Failing to reciprocate can severely damage your reputation and the relationship.


2. Never Give Anything Burdensome

  • As the Chinese always feel as though they need to reciprocate, make sure you never give anything too burdensome.
  • Gifting someone an incredibly expensive gift is likely to crush the receiver as they will instantly be thinking, “how on earth can I repay this?
  • So, make sure when you are giving gifts or doing favours, it’s something that can be reciprocated.


3. Beware of Acceptance

  • Sometimes the Chinese may gift you something or do you a favour with zero apparent reasons behind it.
  • Many a naïve foreigner has fallen foul to this tactic by accepting without understanding that through their acceptance, they have indebted themselves to the other person.
  • So, be very careful when accepting anything as it is not usually out of the goodness of someone’s heart, even if they explicitly state it is.
  • Learning to say ‘no’ in a polite way, is crucial!

Take a Course on Chinese Business Culture

We hope these tips on reciprocity have been useful.

If you’re serious about making a great impression with the Chinese, then have a look at our eLearning course.

It’s packed full of information on the people, culture, business practices and etiquette!

Here’s a peak or see the link to the sample below!

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