Skip to main content
Meetings are rather formal

Busi­ness meet­ings in China can rather be formal

8.17am New Zea­l­and time — above the Pacific Ocean, Auck­land to Hong Kong, NZ87, seat 26F.

This is my ninth trip to China in the last four years, includ­ing four in 2013 alone. Paul, the man sit­ting next to me on the plane, has been 40 times in ten years. Our busi­ness con­nec­tions with China are com­pletely dif­fer­ent, but our exper­i­ences are sim­il­ar. I’m work­ing on films and TV pro­grammes and the design of vis­it­or exper­i­ences. He imports com­mer­cial fur­niture into New Zealand.

We swap famil­i­ar stor­ies — long flights for short vis­its, vis­it­ing cit­ies of mil­lions of people that no one back home has heard of, try­ing to stay sober at busi­ness din­ners, rely­ing on oth­ers for the qual­ity of inform­a­tion, build­ing trust. There are hun­dreds of busi­nesspeople doing this every day and, from the con­ver­sa­tions I have, their exper­i­ences are similar.

I don’t know the man next to me well enough to ask about the dis­asters, but I’m sure he has had them. I know of sev­er­al: a trus­ted part­ner who one day took hun­dreds of thou­sands of yuan out of a joint bank account and dis­ap­peared; ser­vices nev­er paid for, des­pite months of prom­ises; the fraud­u­lent employ­ee who took years to fire because he had con­trol of the com­pany seal, and in China the com­pany seal is needed to fire someone. And, of course, the truly tra­gic story of Fonterra’s entan­gle­ment with Sanlu, which led to deaths.

Doing busi­ness in China is not for the faint-hearted.

The Gib­son Group engages with China for many reas­ons: it’s close to New Zea­l­and com­pared with Europe and some parts of the US; it’s one of the only eco­nom­ies in recent years has actu­ally been grow­ing at a decent rate; we have very strong gov­ern­ment sup­port for our engage­ment and are build­ing good con­nec­tions in the areas we need; and the coun­try is mod­ern­ising (not West­ern­ising; there’s a dif­fer­ence) rap­idly. Reas­ons cited by oth­er busi­nesses are that China’s middle class is increas­ing in wealth and size; the Chinese want to buy lux­ury goods or goods that help them live well; and that as par­ents achieve high­er incomes, they feed their kids more pro­tein. We make pro­tein in New Zea­l­and, in large amounts. You might have noticed.

joy wisdom dream

Gib­son Group’s Steve Barr and Vic­tor­ia Spack­man encour­aged to joy, wis­dom and dream

that's one large library 2

Guang­zhou Lib­rary is one big library












8.31am Beijing time — on my way out of Hong Kong on Through Train T824 (north­bound to Guang­zhou), coach 2, seat 28 (upstairs).


Our busi­ness is a lot fur­ther down Maslow’s hier­archy of needs than pro­tein — we sell cul­ture, con­nec­tion, storytelling. We’ve made pro­grammes about New Zea­l­and wine-mak­ing and wine cul­ture, and about Chinese stu­dents study­ing in New Zea­l­and. They’ve screened on a hand­ful of the hun­dreds of chan­nels in China, to a poten­tial audi­ence in the hun­dreds of mil­lions. It’s impossible to tell how many people they’ve reached — the Chinese don’t release rat­ings in the way that we do here — but it will be a num­ber I can’t hold prop­erly in my head. In China, if you’re ‘one in a mil­lion’, there are 1,300 oth­ers of you.

In addi­tion to those two TV shows, we have a couple of vis­it­or exper­i­ence designs in China under our belt, a few films in devel­op­ment and sev­er­al dis­cus­sions about new TV pro­grammes under­way (my reas­on for this trip: the New Zea­l­and Film Com­mis­sion (NZFC) del­eg­a­tion to Guang­zhou, Shang­hai and Beijing).

The guy next to me on the train (dif­fer­ent guy this time) is chan­ging SIM cards as we go through Shen­zhen — pre­sum­ably from a Hong Kong SIM to a Chinese one. I know I’m in China now because there is more red on the signs and ban­ners, and the hand­rails on the foot­bridges are hos­pit­al green — these are the things I recog­nise. The “Wel­come to China” text from Voda­fone has just arrived. Every­one else seems to be get­ting them too. All down the train. I’ll get sev­er­al of those over the com­ing days as my phone gets con­fused about where it is.


there is media everywhere - back  of taxi seat10.38am Beijing time — taxi on the way from Guang­zhou train sta­tion to hotel (back seat of course). Taxi driver singing Chinese pop rock at the top of his voice. Per­haps he knows I’m a TV per­son and he’s auditioning.


As I leave the train and move towards the taxi rank, I am care­ful not to touch things more than I have to. When I’m in China I wash my hands a lot. I use instant hand­wash and tis­sues. I don’t enjoy the rain and cov­er small cuts quickly. I’m care­ful what I eat. These are all my attempts to stay well.

Unlike food pro­du­cers, we’re selling a ser­vice — we’ll invent, design, cre­ate and deliv­er an exhib­i­tion, film or TV pro­gramme. It won’t exist before you pay us for it and you can’t handle it before you buy. This is dif­fi­cult any­where in the world; it’s argu­ably more dif­fi­cult here. We are essen­tially hir­ing out the high-qual­ity brains of the people we employ. That’s straight­for­ward intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty, and one of the chal­lenges for us is that IP isn’t always highly val­ued here in China. That atti­tude is chan­ging, but not quickly. The things that have been val­ued here are things you can see, touch, eat, or put in your house or pock­et. There is always anoth­er brain in China.


9.55am two days later — Shang­hai hotel con­fer­ence room.


If this is Wed­nes­day it must be Shang­hai. This del­eg­a­tion is full of people who have ideas that they want to pro­duce with China. We’ve just met a man who has made two co-pro­duc­tions with Aus­tralia and some of us are seek­ing a rela­tion­ship with him. There have been sev­er­al oth­ers in the last few days who could be good con­tacts. I have col­lec­ted about 30 busi­ness cards already. Being with the gov­ern­ment-run NZFC helps: doors are opened to us that would oth­er­wise have remained firmly closed. We are greeted favour­ably in most of the places we go, includ­ing by the NZFC’s gov­ern­ment equi­val­ents in China. These people are very import­ant to busi­ness here. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the need for gov­ern­ment in business.

View of Pudong from the Bund

View of Pud­ong from the Bund in Shanghai


2.42pm same day — on the steps of the Shang­hai Theatre Academy.


I’m here for anoth­er three days of relent­less meet­ings, 5am starts, bus trips and noodle soup for break­fast. Actu­ally l like the noodles; they set me up for the day. I’m assess­ing every per­son I meet for wheth­er they can add value to us or wheth­er we can add value to them. They’re doing the same to me. It’s exhaust­ing. There are a lot of people here to assess.

When I get home it will be a case of fol­low­ing up, fur­ther assess­ment and then tent­at­ive for­ward move­ments. At some point we’ll make films. It will take luck and cour­age and dip­lomacy, and the films will be great. You’ll be proud.