China: China M&A: Assembling an Effective Team for a China Transaction Part II

Last Updated: 1 September 2010
Article by Mark Schaub
This article is part of a series: Click China M&A: Assembling an Effective Team for a China Transaction Part I for the previous article.

Most companies engaging in a China project will likely need support from external consultants. However, selecting the external team is often more difficult than assembling the internal team — who do you need? How do you find good ones? And what role should they play? This portion highlights the infamous China consultant. What kind of role do they play and do you actually need them?

The unsuspecting foreign investor will be surprised to find how helpful everyone is in China. Indeed, it often seems that China's biggest sector after manufacturing is consulting service in relation to China. A Google search of "China consultants" resulted in over 20 million results. Googling "ethical consultants in China" resulted in two million results — more than expected!).

One of the reasons that multinationals do relatively well in China is the depth of their management. Medium-sized companies will often need external support for their China projects, and there are so many consultants to choose from in a myriad variety of types and sizes. The usual suspects (ie types of consultants) are listed below.

The China Consultant — Jack of all Trades

"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." — Winston Churchill

"China is much more complicated than that!" — China consultant

The China Consultant can be a blessing to an inexperienced China investor. However, it is extremely important to choose one that understands you and what you wish to do. Further, it is important to ensure that the investor remains deeply involved in the project — responsibility cannot be outsourced. If it is your investment project and it fails, it will not help to blame the hired hands, ie the consultants.

The generalist China consultant — the "zhongguo tong" or old China hand can play an important role.

In many cases, these consultants have little knowledge (many people believe the sentence could end at this point) far less than the client of the industry in which the client is operating. They rely to a great degree on their "China knowledge" and "guanxi".

China is clearly different in many ways from Europe or the US. However, it is not the unfathomable enigma made out by many China consultants. Naturally unscrupulous consultants wish to make China more mysterious than it actually is in order to maintain their role in a project. If a consultant states to you that he is a crucial part of the project (as opposed to becoming crucial by doing a good job), well then, it is probably time to find a different consultant.

However, it would be unfair to dismiss the China consultants out of hand. Consultants can and do play important roles. It is important for foreign investors to select a consultant with whom they feel comfortable and who can cover manpower or expertise shortcomings within their own organization.

Crucial criteria for selecting a consultant include:

The consultant has your interests at heart - For many consultants, it is not the success or failure of the project that matters, rather, it is whether the project proceeds that is important. In many cases, unscrupulous consultants prepare feasibility studies which have best case scenarios based on the assumption that "if every Chinese added one inch to his shirt tail", and worst case scenarios which are only slightly less pessimistic, such as "if every Chinese added two-thirds of one inch to his shirt tail".

Case study: The Intermediary

In the Harvard Business Review on Doing Business with China (Graham, John L. and Lam, N. Mark, "The Chinese Negotiation", in Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China (Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).), an article entitled "Chinese Negotiation" by John L. Graham and N. Mark Lam lays great importance on the role of the "intermediary" (zhongjian ren) (In Chinese: 中间人). Basically the intermediary is a person who can bridge the two sides and intercede when there is conflict. The authors advise that the intermediary plays an indispensable" role in such discussions:

"Only a native Chinese speaker can read and explain the moods, intonations, facial expressions, and body language Chinese negotiators exhibit during a formal negotiation session. Frequently only the zhongjian ren can determine what's going on. ... the zhongjian ren can step in because he is an interpreter not so much of words as of cultures." (Graham, John L. and Lam, N. Mark, "The Chinese Negotiation", in Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China, p 41)

Experience, at least mine, has shown that if in order to communicate with the Chinese partner on the other side you need someone to analyse his "moods, intonations, facial expressions, and body language", well, it is probably time to look for another Chinese partner who is less difficult to deal with. One should also bear in mind that the mission is not accomplished with the signing of a contract — it is the establishment of a successful project. At the time of project implementation, the zhongjian ren will no doubt be off brokering deals elsewhere while you will be sitting with Chairman Liu, trying to work out what he means when he crosses his arms and speaks with a slightly higher than normal lilt.

However, I may be wrong as John L. Graham and N. Mark Lam even helpfully provide an example of intermediary "magic":

"Indeed, we have seen more than one zhongjian ren successfully deal with divisive disagreements. The following is one such case.

A vice president of a New York-based software company went to Beijing to negotiate a distribution contract with a Chinese research institute. Having attended meetings arranged by the intermediary — a former senior executive with the institute — the VP was pleased with the progress during the first two days. But on the third day, the two sides became embroiled in a fruitless debate over intellectual property rights. Feeling they were losing face, the Chinese ended the meeting. That night, the VP and the China country manager met with the intermediary. The following day, the intermediary called the head of the institute and worked his magic. In the end, both sides agreed that the intellectual property rights were to be jointly owned, and the contract was signed." (Graham, John L. and Lam, N. Mark, "The Chinese Negotiation", in Harvard Business Review on Doing Business in China, p 42)

And that indeed sums up the problems with using intermediaries in China.

Intermediaries normally convince the unsuspecting foreigner to agree to what the Chinese counterpart wants. The above passage even admits that the intermediary was "a former senior executive with the institute". It is unlikely that he would switch allegiance to the US company based on some nice dinners (according to the authors, "Expensive meals in nice places are key"). In my experience, the intermediary (especially one with links to the Chinese partner) grants the Chinese partner an enormous advantage in negotiations. The intermediary will allow the Chinese side to know what the foreign side is thinking and will normally push for the easiest way to an agreement. This is normally to convince the foreign partner that "this is China" and to agree to the proposal on the table.

The "magic" solution outlined above was that the New York software company agreed to joint ownership of the intellectual property rights of its software with a Chinese distributor. Leaving aside the fact that it would seem strange to grant a distributor intellectual property rights, the even greater question is: what was the "magic"? Did the Chinese distributor want sole ownership of the software? I do not think I would grant a distributor ownership of software.

The consultant is realistic about China and himself - Many China consultants have a vested interest in making China a mysterious, unfathomable, and almost dangerous place. Only with their guidance and even more importantly, their highly placed contacts, could your medium-sized company hope to navigate the behemoth which is China. This is obviously over the top. Some things are different in China, but most things that make sense overseas also make sense here. Contacts do help as is the case everywhere, but they are not the only factor.

In addition, one should be wary of consultants who claim "they have unrivalled contacts in China", "my father was a foreign minister in post-liberation China" (indeed the writer has met three consultants who have made this claim — but they well have been telling the truth as they all proved to be crooks and may have been related) etc.

The consultant should not care too much - Naturally it is important for your consultant to care but it is also important that he does not care too much.

This can be best illustrated by the following case:

Case study: There is no place like Home

A company from Austria was interested in manufacturing cane chairs in China. Basically, the design was made in Austria. Cane would need to be sourced in China and some assembly work was required. The production would then be exported. All in all, a small project.

As the company was small and had little overseas experience, it came across an Austrian entrepreneur living in China. This Austrian entrepreneur had a factory located in Xiaoshi, a small village in Liaoning province in the Northeast of China. The Austrian entrepreneur had convinced the Austrian company that he was an extremely successful businessman in China and was running a number of factories very successfully. That this successful businessman was willing to take time out of his hectic schedule to assist in locating an ideal place to assemble some cane chairs did not seem to raise any alarm bells.

In any event, consult he did. The conservative Austrian company requested a feasibility study on the location of the facility. The Austrian consultant went off and conducted his investigation. Now, a layman may think that the obvious location for a small assembly plant for export would be near a port, a railway connection or some other form of transport. Alternatively, it would make sense to have the facility located near the raw materials.

You would be wrong. The feasibility report concluded that the perfect location for the assembly would be Xiaoshi — despite being located far from rail, sea or port; despite being four hours from the nearest airport; despite being possibly one of the only places in China where bamboo refuses to grow.

However, if the consultant surprised with the general location of the proposed facility, he was able to exceed all expectations in relation to the level of specification. The consultant had been able to pinpoint a factory on a street near his current factory. Further good news abounded in the feasibility study. In addition to finding an optimal assembly location, the consultant had been able to drum up support with the local party secretary. The report proudly stated that "Xiaoshi's party secretary supports the establishment of a cane chair production facility". In addition, he would give his support to the Austrian company to use the state-owned factory provided the Austrian company was able to meet certain investment and tax requirements. The consultant was also willing to take a share in the new venture to "smoothen things".

The Austrian company decided to set up a simple assembly plant in Suzhou and has been successfully assembling and exporting chairs for several years without high-level political support.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

This article is part of a series: Click China M&A: Assembling an Effective Team for a China Transaction Part I for the previous article.
This article is part of a series: Click China M&A: Assembling an Effective Team for a China Transaction Part III for the next article.
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions