How to survive in a Chinese company

I’ve now been working in Shanghai for over 5 years, and 14 months in a Chinese company using Mandarin as the main working language. So here I list the lessons I took from the past year — many things I should have done better, or things I’ve seen happen in other companies through stories from friends.

This is not about guanxi or banquets with baijiu. This is 2023 ok, while those clichés mostly come from books written at least a decade ago. For example, I don’t drink any alcohol and just flat out refuse to drink any, but so does our CEO. We toast with orange juice.

Obviously, this is just one list of examples of ‘working at a Chinese company’, mostly from Zhangjiang (张江) in Shanghai.

But here we go.

1 — You’ll have to put in the hours

996 is still very present, especially in the tech industry, despite it being illegal. HR will carefully pick their words, lest they be caught demanding staff to work 60 to 70 hours a week — all unpaid overtime — and will use terms like ‘fèndòu’ (奋斗) instead, which translates to struggling and fighting.

Actually, lots of Chinese companies are in a state of ‘fèndòu’ with huge targets and encouraging everyone to fight for the success of the company (more on that in point 4). Maybe it’s not just companies but the whole country. I see it, for instance, in the way Double Eleven sales records are celebrated. I’ve never felt such a rally to improve in the Netherlands, not in society or any company.

Anyway, working hours. You clock in by scanning your face and you clock out with it. The number of hours you put in in itself has nothing to do with your performance. It’s not a “work hard ‘or‘ efficient” thing, it’s ‘and‘.

It is very taxing — and for me, only doable if I get good sleep, exercise, eat healthy — and probably get enough satisfaction from my work. Some days I clock in at 08:30, to go home at 20:30 or even later, only to go home and do my Chinese homework. I practically stopped reading books, and lots of things at home I should be fixing (like, I need new batteries for my digital candles… clean the windows on the outside), but haven’t done it yet.

Overwork isn’t just seen as a necessity, it’s a virtue. Our top directors will mention the example of Elon Musk who sleeps in his office. And it’s also a collective thing. If the staff you manage don’t do overtime, you’ll be critiqued: “If other departments see your members going home early, what will they think?!” or “So they don’t have enough work? How is it possible they go home early?”

I actually changed my mind a bit about this. The company where I’m working at isn’t a market leader or anything, we have plenty of challenges. Getting everyone to punch above their weight is a really effective way to get the results you’d normally get in only half the time. The key is motivating everyone so it doesn’t feel like a punishment, and letting everyone get satisfaction from their work as much as possible.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why staff rotation is so high in Chinese companies. I’ve had many times where I’d be asking myself, “Hey where’s that lady or guy?” and then looking them up on WeCom, and seeing [Terminated] next to their name. They just left without saying goodbye. People don’t pass their probation period — or make the choice for themselves. They go back to their hometowns to rest or change jobs, hoping the next job will be less taxing. There are many items in the office and when you ask whose it is, you’ll hear it’s from someone who already left. Hence I tell everyone in my team:

  • Nobody is going to always work at this company, so let’s;
  • Be nice to each other;
  • Make creative work that we enjoy making and can be proud of;
  • Let’s only do stuff that matters and efficiently contributes to our OKR;
  • To improve the hours we clock in, play the system a bit. For example, don’t clock out and then have dinner downstairs. Have dinner first, then come back, and then clock out.
  • Nobody dies if we make a mistake. Relax.
  • Keep track of what you do so if you’ve worked here for some time, show those results in a future job interview.

This last one sounds like I’m hoping they’ll leave but it’s not. If it motivates them to stay here for more than a year and push for fantastic results, that’s already a win.

For myself, I will use my hours also as an advantage, for instance: “Oh I really care about the company, I’m also here on a Saturday working. So then I also want X and Y and Z. Please give that to me. 你来我往 (back and forth), that’s how it works right?”

It’s not useful to send HR any articles about the law. If you’re not putting in the hours, you lose those rights and won’t even be invited to key meetings. Or simply be let off.

2 — It’s not enough to contribute, you have to prove it

Plenty of people are fired from tech companies despite putting in tons of overtime. That’s because they don’t contribute enough (or don’t prove it enough), or always need help and guidance.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started was despite getting tons of media exposure, but not proving how effective that was for our company. Our team would work so hard to get results, and focus so hard on the results themselves that we neglected other aspects, such as using traceable UTM links. So we’d show in our weekly report that we were featured on a website with 30 million monthly visitors, but had a hard time proving how many visitors or purchases that brought to our website.

I figured the value of the media report would be obvious, but no.

It’s like there are two realities. One is where business results matter, just straight income for the company that pays for R&D and our salaries. The other is an internal reality that justifies the existence of our department. Ideally, they overlap — but not always.

So now we try to focus on where they overlap. Real business results that we can prove. An untraceable activity is less desirable than one that carries UTM links, even if the untraceable one would actually bring better business results.

In my previous jobs, I think I’ve always done well at getting results through creative work. In 14 months at this Chinese company, I’ve mostly learned how to make proper business reports and tables — and how to present them.

3— Don’t be busy (despite having to work with very inexperienced people)

Maybe everything in this article is true for any job anywhere, but maybe especially true for China. Just like this one.

I also worked with fresh graduates in the Netherlands, but many of those were good designers, writers, and videographers from vocational education — perfect for the team I needed them for (marketing). It’s hard to find those craftspeople in big Chinese companies; the chance that HR gives you someone from ‘大专Dàzhuān’ is extremely limited. Instead, a team will consist of young people, incredibly smart — sometimes talented, but often inexperienced and not knowing what to do. And so you’ll have people who graduated from some of the best universities in the country suddenly trying their hand at Canva, or with limited English trying to set up a Google Ads account for overseas marketing.

Also in China, what adds to the problem is the extreme pace of staff rotation, so when you taught someone and she or he is showing progress, it might be time to teach another person.

There are a few people extremely bright and talented people on my team and they are the exception to the rule. Many needed coaching, which is fun. But the downside is you’ll be super busy — so busy sometimes it’s hard to have the time and peace of mind to do actual planning — or to make reports (see point 2). Find ways to be less busy.

4 — Business goals are unrealistic

I’ve always had the feeling that in the Netherlands, just growth was fine, whereas in China, growth that isn’t double or triple-digits is unacceptable.

When you hear those requirements, don’t laugh or be skeptical (see point 5). See them more as inspirational goals. You won’t be fired if you don’t hit them. Try to honestly aim for them and discuss with the CEO what you’re trying to do, and what you’ve done. And you’ll see that even if you reach only half of the goal, that’ll still land you some compliments — because none of the other managers are achieving the goals set for them either.

Oh, and it’s not just unrealistic goals. You’ll be short on resources. Be saving on costs and manpower. And when you think you’ve saved enough, you’ll have to save even more.

5 — Don’t take the bait

There will be situations where other departments are trying to take credit for what we’ve done, or trying to somehow get resources that belong to us for their benefit. (Actually, usually, those two things are the same: if you get results, you get resources).

Don’t take the bait. You don’t need to call out this bullshit in meetings where everyone is present. Either take the person who needs to know alone for a moment, and say “Hey about that thing, this is how it actually is” — or simply in your weekly meeting with the CEO, show how you’ve achieved the results that the other department claims. Show it in a detailed and structured way that proves it without a doubt. You don’t even need to mention the other team taking credit for it.

It’s a type of restraint you need to get accustomed to. In the Netherlands, we learn to talk about our feelings. Sharing them is good. But when you complain in China, people nod. But when you repeat it for the 20th time, they’ll confront you and say: “Of course I know, do you think I don’t know? I’m not stupid.”

There can also be ridiculous goals (see point 4) given to you. But don’t take the bait, don’t call it out — especially not publically. Just wait for the follow-up meeting to clarify or for things to fall into place.

And it’s a type of language you need to get customed too. Don’t directly ask another team for something directly and bluntly. If you want things done, then in a meeting with all the managers, state: “Hi, I have one request. In other to meet the goal of X, which is very important to the company, I would like to have Y changed in this way. That way I can achieve the OKR given to our team.” With the top managers listening in, they’ll be way more cooperative. Of course, other managers will also use this language. Instead of saying “Yes sure”, they’ll say “Let me come back to that” and never do so. So then in the next meeting you’ll have to publically, politely, ask that again.

Sometimes there are meetings that turn into a huge circle-jerk with lots of stuff added to the original plan, and I’ll be thinking to myself “it really doesn’t work that way”. But there’s no need to call that out, at that moment. Don’t take the bait. Just wait until the plan has to be carried out and then let these things sort themselves out.

Some managers will be despicable — just to achieve their goals in any possible way. Don’t take the bait. I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been told my Mandarin isn’t good enough, and that I didn’t understand what was being discussed, while I exactly understood the contents of the meeting. When I asked which part I didn’t understand, I didn’t get any answer. That manager would purposely start talking super fast and in complicated idioms, hoping I wouldn’t be able to catch up. At other times, managers would do some talking behind my back, just anything to get an edge for their own OKR. Nobody will solve these problems for you, they will just say “Aaah don’t care”.

It can stress you out, but actually, it’s easier if you tell yourself everybody is just playing a game, and they’re all friendly people deep inside. It’s just a game.

6 — Learn the language

Still, you’re going to hear you’re a foreigner — even if you speak Chinese pretty decently, just if it suits someone’s argument. That’s fine. But being able to speak Mandarin in a Chinese company is probably a huge help — unless you’re at the highest level of the company. For me, it has been essential. All work meetings and reports are done in Mandarin, even if everyone understands English at an elementary level. For me to have a seat at that table, Mandarin is a requirement.

But even though I always can understand what is being discussed — it’s still a challenge to present the results (point 2) elegantly and convincingly in Mandarin in a hostile work environment. Think about it, if you’re going to debate someone about the effectiveness of something, would you want to do it in your third language, or in your mother tongue?

Learn the language. It took me less than five years of evening classes, and I’m not particularly good with languages. You may be able to do it in much less.

7 — Some stuff is just a type of tax

The company’s internal system for applying for stuff is cumbersome. Or you’ll need to do an activity that only benefits an investor, you’ll need to spend time on a business report nobody will ever read, or something else. Wiggle out if you can, but if not — it’s better if you do not get annoyed by this. This perhaps is about life in China in general. Your VPN that doesn’t connect, scooters that drive on the wrong side of the road, people that smoke in places where it’s not allowed, people that make phone calls on speaker function next to you, and grandparents who let their grandchild pee in public places like the subway station platform.

I also don’t like it when it rains on my birthday, but what can you do about it? Just like that, life in China is better if you don’t let these little things get to you.

8 — Create a positive environment on your own

This all seems harsh and negative but it can be a fantastic ride (even if it’s taxing). I work in the technology sector, and to see new hardware being developed is magical. I’ve also learned so much — especially how to manage people and make better reports. The people who are part of my team now are fantastic — and it has been a lot of fun. If not for anything else, that’s enough for me.

One thing that obviously helps is not to look to HR for any happy vibes — they’re only here to spin overtime into fun activities. In your team, create a safe atmosphere where people can talk about their ideas and hopes, feel appreciated, and can work on things they like to do, as much as possible.

working in a Chinese company