It is not Impossible, But Difficult

I enjoyed chatting with George from New York the other day in my garden. We discussed about doing business in China.

George said, when he consulted his friends about anything in China, he often got the answer: “It is not impossible, but difficult”.

“It is really frustrating to me”, George said, “basically they didn’t answer my question at all.” George added, “What on earth does it mean by Not impossible but Difficult?”

That is the Way it Works

I laughed out load. I rest assured George that it is very common answer, and is absolutely the right answer to many questions he asked. If he asks me a lot of questions, I would answer the same way, “it is not impossible, but difficult”. Let me tell you why.

In China, the culture is not based on philosophy, reasoning or mathematics.

Mathematics and most science has predictable and certain answers.

If you ask

What is the result of 1+1?

The answer is 2.

But human being is not that predictable.

If you ask

What happens if I show this picture to this person?

The human interaction is not that predicable.

He may smile;

he may turn away;

he may be angry;

he may also run into tears.

It depends on all kinds of factor including what the picture is about, what the relationship you have with the person, what time do you show the picture in his life. When there are too many factors, we call it something like an ART.

U.S. rules works more like mathmatics; China rules more works like human being.

In U.S., rules works like science and mathematics. If you ask:

“Can I do this?”

Typically, you get a Yes or No answer.

In China, it’s more like an art, instead of an equation.

“Can I do this?”

“Well. It depends.

Typically, you CANNOT do that.

BUT if you know the person who is in charge of this, MAYBE you can do that.

BUT if it is the time that the law is enforced these days, even your friend MAY NOT be able to help you these days.

BUT if you wait for several days, your friends can help you with that….

The scenario is on show everyday.

Here are some examples.


The new law system in China is just developed within 50 years, with 20 years of interruption (when basically no law at all). So it is not mature, and people didn’t get used to laws and regulations yet.

For example, if you ask “Can foreign Internet companies run business in China?” Well. It is a tough question. If you expect YES or NO answer, it is your problem that you don’t under the country at all.

The right answer MAY be “NO”, because there are regulations and laws explicitly says foreign Internet companies cannot operate in China.

But don’t stop here. Otherwise, you are assuming no one in China ever realized the existence of Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, or any NASDAQ listed Chinese Internet company, like Sina, Sohu…

It seems the answer is “YES” despite of the laws, but you cannot say that. It is very complicated to hand the situation in China, that requires skills not available from someone who never lived in China.

It is Not Impossible, But it’s Difficult

You will experience these type of answer all the way.

Something I feel very strange with I discuss topics with my foreign friends is, they try to think stuff in a logic way.

People keeps asking questions to me. It sounds like “What is the difference between the two markets, China and U.S.?” “Why does people do this?” “Did they do this because of this…?”

Well. For me, I tried very hard to answer the questions, but to be honest, I felt I am not telling the truth. It is not accurate to answer with either “YES”, or “NO”. There are not directly reasoning between cause and results. For me, I do be able to answer many questions in the western thinking model, but many times, if I do care to help people to under the local market, I would stop and say: “The reasoning and logic people use here is different from the one you use.” “Let’s start again by analyzes it in this way….”

That is the reflection of Asian culture “Harmony” + “Ambiguity”

When the West Meets the East

When the West culture meets the East in Shanghai, there are a lot of conflict.

I see people from the States come to China to make money. They just come and go. Some makes huge money, and some just keep losing money. The difference relies on the way people think. I am quite amazed to see how difference the gap is.

It does not work that well to believe rules, science, mathematics, western logic and all these stuff to be the ONLY and Universal way. There are countries in Asia that human factors play more important rules. It does hurt efficiency, I agree, but it is the reason why the culture lasted thousands of years – no single way to run smoothly in this country, but no single force can destroy this country. It’s like how the nature works.

If you don’t understand what “It is not impossible, but it is difficult” means, you don’t really understand China yet.

P.S. I have a special category called westmeetseast in this blog, and put all observations about this culture conflicts under this category. As you may noticed, I finally decided to remove Google Adsense from my individual entry page, and use the precious place to place a navigational box of “related entries”. Hope you will find the small box helpful to find related articles.

15 thoughts on “It is not Impossible, But Difficult

  1. I am an American Chinese doing business in China. Over the years I heard many people in the USA complained about the business ethic in China. They always had sensational stories on how foreigners got cheated by the Chinese.

    The problem is these people take a small sample and blow it up to represent the whole. I think the Chinese businessmen who deliberately tried to cheat you only represents a very small portion. The challenge is more on the cultural side and lack of common understanding on what to expect.

    Being a Chinese myself I thought I understand the culture. I was wrong to begin with. Like we read over the over again on the web, the rules and regulations here are for reference only, not for straight enforcement. Just think about driving in most any part of China. Like Jian Shuo said, if you followed the rules, you became a nuisance to other auto drivers.

    The communication with your counterparts in China is also very different. It’s a tiresome process for most people living in the west. The businessmen in China may hear what you said but not necessary listen to what you had said. It is therefore required lots of efforts on your part to get the message through; sometimes you have to repeat the same messages form different angles.

    The legal system in China is certainly not helping. There is no way or almost impossible to go through the Chinese court system to manage disputes. The legal concept here is very different than in other countries. That affects many aspects of business dealing such as contracts, lease, legal binding agreements, etc.

    I guess at the end of the day it is like this: do you look for reasons to do business in China; or the other way around. You can go either way with sufficient reasons or evidences to justify your decision. If you should decide to come, the challenge will be to build infrastructure to support your business operations. How to minimize your risk will be the key.

  2. One of the things that makes the law difficult in China is that it is undergoing dramatic changes. Many of the important business laws have been on the books only since January. In the IP arena, laws and policies seem to come out every few months. It is very difficult to predict what local officials will do with various laws when there is so little history to go by. On top of this, what the officials do in Shanghai might have little to no predictive value in trying to figure out what they will do in Dalian. It is difficult, but not impossible.

  3. Good thought.

    Just wondering why you have two ‘related article’ in both right hand side and bottom of the article? Maybe one of them needed to be removed?

  4. 建硕对中国的国情很了解,也能够分辨美国与中国的各种体制环境的差异。客观的事实是中国的很多方面确实并不完善,并非盲目乐观,但整个体制和环境的确是在不断地更趋完善。建硕是个追求完美的人,所以好像你自己说的,wendy很多项目能坚持下来,但换了你,可能就放弃了。很多时候人会被自己眼前的一亩三分地遮住,不妨粗放些,包括写blog,如果确实没有什么可写的,不妨就let it be。

  5. Richard, I just added the navigation on the right top to help people to get other articles easier. I should keep only one. Which one do you think I should keep, the right top one or the one in the middle?

  6. jian shuo, perhaps you can consider to re-phrase the caption to read:

    “It is possible with due flexibilities!”

  7. JianShou…..I believe I said….”It is difficult…but not impossible”…..however it still works for me….thanks for all your advise and company.

  8. It is the same way in the U.S.. There are a lot of things that are not impossible, but very hard to get. Or very difficult to do. If you are a high roller, you definitely can lobby Congress and change the law and rules and regulations in your favor, but at a very high price. So, what is the difference between the two? I dare say.

  9. that is a farily interesting topic. Could you guys show some statistics here?

  10. i have read ur personal articles for quite a long time

    it is quite special`

    i am still a college student in mainland china,

  11. I think you have much thoughts on culture comparation of East and West. I believe that if you want to make money from your customer, you must satisfy him first. Many businessers from USA or other contries come to China, but they never want to get along with Chinese. Millions of Chinese are learning English everyday, but how many foreigners learn Chinese? So they can’t satisfy Chinese customers and make money. I believe more money can be made by Chinese from oversea market in future because Chinese businessers know more than foreign ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *