Sucking Up and Flattering Your Way to Success in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 21, 2012

My daily conversations with clients, business partners and friends in Hollywood often leave me with the distinct feeling that very few have a clear idea of how to get ahead in China. The language, culture, customs, ethics—they can be daunting if you haven’t spent years learning the ropes. To those who are new to the PRC it must seem an impenetrable, incomprehensible and treacherous place to do business.

I’ve spent more than twenty years doing movie and TV deals in the Middle Kingdom, and though no one has ever called me the Thalberg or Bruckheimer of China, I’ve accomplished enough there that I believe I’m qualified to offer some useful advice. If you want to learn the secret of success in China, this is your lucky day. I’m about to share with you the one, indispensable thing you must do to get ahead in the PRC.

And no, studio execs, I’m not talking about bribery. Put your checkbooks down, you sly dogs. Sure, a well-placed bribe here and there can work wonders in China (how else to explain John Carter’s theatrical release slot?)*, but really, who can afford it anymore? Back when I started doing business a nice bottle of cognac or a pair of designer jeans could buy you the entire China magnesium concession—or so I’m told**—but nowadays one has to consider gifting a brand new BMW or a tony Sanlitun pied-a-terre just to get SARFT to approve a script. And besides, with the SEC sniffing around your email and cell phone records, the risk of an FCPA conviction just takes all the fun out of it.

No, I’m talking about a more cost-effective, time-honored strategy than bribery for getting what you want in China: I’m talking about flattery. Brownnosing. Ass-kissing, kowtowing, shamelessly obsequious bootlicking. There are 322 words in the Chinese language for “toadying” and every single one of them is a synonym for “success.”

Fawning over power brokers to curry favor is an art in China’s film business, a refined social skill that should not be attempted by novices. One can be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood bona fides in this arena are applicable in China, but the two cultures have completely different forms of sucking up.

First, one must know when and where to brownnose.  In a business meeting, perhaps? Never! Serious business rarely gets done in business meetings. The proper venues for apple-polishing are banquets, parties, dinners, anywhere that food and especially booze are served. You’ll want the boss-man or boss-woman liquored up and tipsily receptive to your two-faced advances. If your target hasn’t reached the ideal level of inebriation, you can get the ball rolling with a toast.

For beginners, it is usually best not to get too flashy. Acknowledging the target’s superiority over one’s lowly self is a safe way to go. As author Fang Ye pointed out in a recent article in China’s “Economic Observer”:

Some people decide to go the self-deprecating route. For instance, at a recent dinner, someone stood up to say: “Director Wang, when you came up with your last idea, I sincerely felt someone like me wouldn’t ever be able to think that up, even if I worked overtime for the whole year.” This is a good technique for beginners.

Experienced flatterers can take risks, for example, using the boss’s children. Here’s an example of intermediate level flattery that could have been delivered, say, by a man working in a Chinese studio’s production office:

“The last time your daughter came by the office, I happened to be working overtime. Your daughter said to me, “You are working so hard.” What a kind child she is! You can tell she really cares about people! It’s so rare for a child her age to be so thoughtful!”

Fang Ye applauds this sort of intricately crafted kiss-up with a five-star seal of approval:

Jackpot! Slapping his shoulder, the boss toasts him with two glasses of wine. Not only has he flattered the leader, he has also casually passed the message that he was working late even when the boss was not around.

Flattery is most challenging when the object of your adulation has no obvious merits. It takes a creative mind to find an appropriate opening in these situations. But it can be done. For example, when the studio chairman asks what you thought of his perfectly dreadful film, you can offer: “That was some movie!” or “You’ve really done it this time, Chairman Jiang.”

And sometimes glaring character flaws can be turned to your advantage. When kissing up to a chronic drunk, one can say, “Every hour with you is a happy hour.” Or when introduced to a boss who you’ve heard is lazy and prefers hanging out at the golf course or the race track instead of the office, you can proffer such ‘compliments’ as “Director Li, I hear your career is really taking off,” or “Director Zhao, a man like you is hard to find.”

So there you have it, the social grease that makes the Chinese movie business go. If you carry only one success tactic during your next trip to China, make it this one: “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

*Disclaimer: Any insinuation regarding the veracity of this article is greatly exaggerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

**Special offer: If you’d like to buy a metric ton of magnesium, I’m your guy. Go to: www.buychinesemetal.com

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com

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5 thoughts on “Sucking Up and Flattering Your Way to Success in China

  1. Being thoughtful to others scores big in China, even if it infringes on what westerners consider someone’s privacy. Therefore, complementing someone for being thoughtful is a great way to thank and flatter Chinese. Just to add to your sharing Rob, I learned this lesson the other way around. Once upon a time, observing privacy was something fairly new and foreign to me.

  2. hey rob,

    really enjoyed the sucking up piece – well written and lots of fun! particularly liked the ” that was some film!” compliment (of sorts). always found it useful to have that one on standby at hollywood screenings.

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