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Geopolitics is a subject as sensitive as it is dynamic; we can see it in the news every day. An alliance that seemed ideal yesterday may already be completely undesirable tomorrow. How do we keep things in balance as a continent, as a country or even as a region? How do companies deal with this? To find out, Dr. Yuxi Nie puts the magnifying glass on the relationship between Brainport Eindhoven – a high-tech region that is extremely sensitive to the consequences of geopolitics – and China. In a series of articles, she keeps us informed of the progress of her research, which aims to devise effective communication strategies for Brainport. Today, part 4. Read the other episodes here.

Our world is becoming more digitalized as cross-media facilities and accessible technological tools vastly change how we work and communicate. Business organizations face a paradigm shift that calls for a systematic digital “integration of processes, information, people, machines, spaces, and products”. In the current socio-technical system, which researchers refer to as “Industry 4.0”, relationships between people and organizations across borders are being largely reshaped by the access or the lack of access to digital media platforms. Not only the industries but the everyday mundane life of consumers worldwide has been significantly connected with digital media. This is especially the case since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It Is More Than Just Digitally Connected with Your Business Partners

Digital integration in international business communication is inevitable. Digitization may have provided business leaders and entrepreneurs with more flexibility and easier access to new international markets, but it also poses more questions about the quality, security, and privacy of cross-cultural business communication. The ways to answer those questions are not by avoiding digital integration but by understanding how it all works. 

In Sino-Dutch business communication, how do businesses find out which digital communication technologies they will need to be familiar with? And what does that do to the quality of communication? For virtual communication, organizations choose from various digital applications and platforms, such as WhatsApp, Outlook emails, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Wechat, and Tencent Meeting, among which Wechat and Tencent Meeting are the two major players in China for online meetings. 

“Eventually, to do business in China, you will need to be adaptive to the Chinese applications.”

Ronnie Kuppens, Project Manager Brainport Development

Digital media platforms play important parts in Brainport-China business cooperation and communication. It is not news that some international digital platforms and websites are not accessible in China. Due to the (lack of) access, international organizations with business relations in China mostly end up adopting Chinese digital media applications and platforms when communicating with their partners. As project manager Ronnie Kuppens at Brainport Development says in our interview: “Chinese partners are used to doing business via WeChat. Since this app allows users to show their personal lives through daily feeds, it makes Chinese business partners gain more trust at a professional level in turn. Most Dutch businesses would use email instead of WeChat. Such a difference of means of communication could generate misunderstandings.” 

As Ronnie Kuppens explains, coming back from a business tour in China, if Dutch companies email their Chinese contacts attached with long pages of information in brochures, they may receive a response after three weeks. That would neither contribute to effective professional communication nor help maintain personal connections. Instead, during the business tour, if Dutch business representatives exchange their Wechat name cards with potential Chinese partners, they could obtain much faster responses in cross-continental communication. “Perhaps for the Dutch businesses, after you establish contact via Wechat, you would post a picture or two in the daily feeds (also called “moments”) to show the rest of your business tour in China. This way, you could keep the warmth in the new business relations.”

What does all this mean for Brainport business professionals? Mr. Kuppens’s experience demonstrates the importance of building trust. It is more than just exchanging Wechat name cards and having each other on the contacts list. 

“For Buying relations, email works great.”

Gordon Dumoulin, 5iZ China

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that digital platforms like WeChat are the most suitable when establishing and maintaining close relationships. As a business owner and China consultant himself, Gordon Dumoulin notes that it is wise to stay mindful of when and when not to use WeChat for its video/voice calling function. 

Having lived in China and settled in Beijing in 2009, Gordon considers himself an immigrant rather than an expat. Through his professional experience working with Chinese companies, he observes, “Calling is sometimes more sensitive for Chinese suppliers (e.g., sales managers) as they feel being ‘forced’ in providing answers out of politeness due to certain cultural aspect (or just simply language barrier) even if they would not know exactly the answer. This is especially sensitive when you have never met and are not familiar with each other. In fact, for buying relations, email works great. It helps to document and structure information and communication. For more intense business relations and collaborations with Chinese businesses, Wechat (or Whatsapp if your Chinese partner has VPN) is useful for quick communication and responses.” 

Acquiring an acute awareness of China’s digital developments helps business professionals know the kind of digital tools used and how they are used among Chinese people. Having a profound understanding of how Chinese business partners and consumers communicate could help reduce gaps and increase trust. 

Keeping up with China’s Digital Consumers

Chinese consumers have driven the market and digital innovation with their growing demands and needs. To stay relevant, digital platforms continue to adapt to their users. Differences in the technological design of various digital platforms provide space for producing different types of content affecting users’ expressions and activities. For instance, research shows that Chinese consumers use information-centered platforms such as Sina Weibo to engage in public life and use user-centered digital platforms such as Wechat for social connections. 

“China is taking the lead in digital commerce. From digital marketing to smart retail, Chinese digital commerce is centering around its customers”

Bei Wang, CMO StraightFire

“The concept of “prosumer” in China is realized at a whole new level,” said Bei Wang, “the Marketing Funnel, which places customers at the bottom of the funnel, is no longer applicable. It has been long replaced by the model of Flywheel, where customers are at the center of services, marketing and sales.”

As the chief marketing officer of StraightFire, the world’s first non-fungible tokens (NFT) social app for creating and sharing NFT stories, Bei Wang encourages and empowers creative professionals to find alternative digital spaces to display their works, tell their stories, and subsequently generate income. Meanwhile, working as a lecturer at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Bei Wang has developed the Digital China minor to share the expertise on Chinese social media and innovative business models. 

We discussed the symbiotic relations between digital producers and consumers and how they impact innovative businesses during our conversation. Chinese social media applications are integrated into all aspects of domestic consumption. Such innovations directly contribute to the efficiency of digital business communication, payments, marketing, customer services, and investments for over one billion internet users. 

Integrating social media channels and e-commerce platforms

Major Chinese internet players such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent roll out in-demand service-oriented features by seamlessly integrating social media channels and e-commerce platforms. Using the WeChat application as an example, started as a spinoff from WhatsApp, its functions have evolved much faster than any other American social media platform. Its users worldwide could engage in e-commerce activities, P2P transfers, networking, domestic and cross-border payments, and investments

Other players, such as the Chinese fast fashion retailer SHEIN and video hosting application Tiktok, demonstrate that Chinese data-driven digital marketing is not only successful in China but also effective to international users. A recent report shows that SHEIN has become the “most downloaded” shopping app in the US. 

Looking at these fast digital developments, Bei Wang believes that there is no comparable testing field of digitalization like the one in China. “When we talk about digital China, we are not only talking about citizens residing in Chinese cities. We also refer to overseas investors, the shareholders, and many players. Initially as copycats, many of the digital platforms such as Wechat, Meituan, and Ochama developed with an incredible speed to adjust to Chinese customers, outrunning their American counterparts. What is the fundamental difference between the Chinese and American social media apps? It is in the design of the algorithm.”

Indeed, young Chinese consumers born after the 90s are well aware of such algorithms. Not only knowing it, but they also use it. Even with a sense of humor, social media users often post content with a note directly shooting at the built-in algorithm as if it was their assistant: “Could big data bring me to x, y, z related content, please?” 

What about their privacy, then? It is a question that should be asked of all types of digital integration worldwide. As Bei Wang contests, “Chinese people also care about their privacy. It is no question that the privacy issue applies to all digital platforms. They just tend not to let the fear of compromising their privacy stop them from growing, having fun, and benefiting from technological innovation.”

Stay Tuned to Digital Developments in China 

What is new? Will there be Wechat-alternatives shortly? What kind of communication characteristics will be important to consider? 

With the central government rolling out measures to achieve “common prosperity”, 2021 has been a year of the technological crackdown with regulatory constraints on technological monopolies, digital assets, and gaming. To explore new avenues, China’s internet giants are already venturing into a metaverse with Chinese characteristics targeting young Chinese consumers. Among the many Chinese firms showing interest in the field, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu have been investing in metaverse-related companies which work on social media, augmented and virtual reality, mixed reality, and gaming. The new social digital ecosystem’s evolution is changing quickly, with more than 16,000 metaverse-related trademark applications filed by far. For the millennials and Gen-Z in China, building and maintaining virtual identities through digital platforms in their consumption and social activities enable them to explore new ways of networking, sharing interests, showing talents, and expressing their feelings. 

China’s “Guanxi” (connections) culture fully embraces various forms of digitization. In the last decade, Wechat has served as an indispensable platform to enable users to establish their inclusive and exclusive networks. As WeChat has evolved into the “all-in-one platform” which mingles personal connections and professional networking, metaverse-related apps such as Taobao Life and Soul offer spaces for subcultures where young people can explore a “separate life” in a more exclusive environment. Such digital developments have now received support at the local government level, with the first and second-tier cities starting to test the water. By tapping into the metaverse-shaped different subcultures, businesses and brands could engage their customers in a more personalized and experiences-oriented manner. 

These developments will introduce innovative ways of digital communication, marketing, and content creation. Doing business in digital China will require one to beat the trend and embrace changes. We will stay tuned. 

Yuxi Nie

Dr. Yuxi Nie is a researcher-lecturer at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, executing the research project “Towards a communicative strategy that guides Brainport companies to do business with China in a growing digital business context”. Business relations between Brainport organizations and their partners based in China have been growing rapidly. Probing the geo-political, intercultural and digital challenges, this project explores the Sino-Dutch corporate communicative strategies and aims to develop effective communication strategies for organizations in Brainport. This two-year Hbo-postdoc project started in 2022 and is funded by Regieorgaan SIA, part of NWO, the Dutch Research Council.