You Can Never Trust a Chinese – Or Can You?

Can you trust the Chinese? Before moving to China I talked to a good friend, who was already living and working in China for almost five years. One of the things he said was “you can never trust the Chinese”.

That sounds very cynical, my husband and I thought. And it can’t be right. After all, we had Chinese friends in the US, my husband had worked extensively with Chinese including having a Chinese boss and at one time being  the sole non-Chinese member of a big team. We thought we had a pretty good understanding of Chinese people. Well, at least the Chinese people we met in the US.

Trust or understanding?

We have now been in China for well about three years and are experiencing the culture every day. From interactions at work, learning the language, and just daily life, we now see where my friend was coming from.

Instead of his harsh words, however, I would put it a bit differently. I would say that as a Westerner you cannot fully understand the Chinese. At least not within just a few years. Maybe it takes more time, more immersion, better language skills or other measures for us to fully understand the Chinese way of thinking.

This is not only true for the “local” Chinese but also for the returnees, those usually middle-aged Chinese who often spent many years abroad. In their heart they remain Chinese and in a Chinese environment they “act Chinese”.

The Chinese way of thinking – or Confucius, Face and Guanxi

The Chinese way of thinking (xiǎng fǎ 想法) is of course heavily influenced by their cultural context. Confucianism and the concepts of Face and Guanxi all play an important role.

Without understanding those cultural influences, a Westerner will have a hard time understanding the way Chinese communicate and behave in a business setting and in everyday life.

If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Practical Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.


You Can Never Trust a Chinese – Or Can You? — 10 Comments

  1. It seems this post struck a nerve with some people. I want to clarify that it is not and never was my intention to bash the Chinese people. Rather, I wanted to highlight the differences in culture, communication, perceptions and expectations, which can often lead to frustration and misunderstandings. I want to encourage anyone who deals with people from a different culture to try and learn about their culture and see the situation from their side, before jumping to a harsh judgement.

  2. Defend it all you want but if someone lies for their own benefit they are not trustworthy. China is a cut throat back stabbing place where people walk about believing they are something they are not and use lies to falsify this personal lie all the time. To some cultures torturing animals is perfectly acceptable, but to a “westerner” it is not. My point is, there comes a point in time when you must decide what YOU consider acceptable and remove such labels as “western” and any excuses of culture from your direction of opinion. If it is not acceptable and harms you or others who are not deserving of harm, it is not acceptable. To me a lie to make yourself benefit at the expense of another, or to not feel (note the word feel) foolish, is dishonest and a BAD character trait. People and children in the west do this all the time, and it is frowned upon – not celebrated. Afterall the lie is always discovered and you lose more face for it. Trust is the basis of anything worth having. And thats the irony. But having a lie discovered and trust lost does NOT deter them. In fact it fuels a devilish twinkle in the eye and smile. Having lived in china for 2 years the lies have caused me so much dufficulty and it is a BAD thing, I will never find it acceptable. I confront everything now with, thats a lie. If you get the devilish twinkle in their eye after saying that, then walk away and ask someone else. Not all lie, but the majority do. In the west you do not expect someone you ask directions to deliberately give you the wrong directions so you tend to believe them. Do that in china and you will suffer. They lie about everything. Dont know something? Lie. Want to succeed over someone else, lie and backstab them. They call white people smiling tigers? But in truth the chinese are smiling tigers. All nice to your face and helpful, but really they are setting you up for a fall or misleading you for some unknown reason. It is childish and weak, and has no relation to confucianism, so youre tenuous suggestion it does is apologetic and wrong. As a rule you can never trust the chinese because they will send you down the wrong path just so their ego can go on thinking its something it is not. Worse they’ll sell you out with no attack of conscience. Good customer service? Dont even think about it because the KNOW what yiu want even when you tell them theyve git it wrong. One of the most difficult things i learnt when becoming an adult was suffering my ignoraned with grace and admiting what i do not know. This is a virtuous, wise and adult quality far more akin to confucianism. Lies to make yourself feel better and appear knowledgable in the moment are unwise and dishonarable. The fact modern chinese culture has now become synonimous with dishonesty in an attempt to hold on to a lie, rather than accept truth, is a big problem for their country and more associated with years of communism than anything philosophical. The wise use of selected lies have been replaced with unwise blanketed and blatant lies. With noone caring if they get found out. Afterall, if a lie is used for no real benefit and it is discovered – that person will never trust you again and that is very unwise. But that thought doesnt even enter theur heads because consequences are not even identified.

    Obviousky not all lie. But that just depends on who you talk to. What i mean is this, if they like something about you or you have some ability to cause strong reprucussions onto them personally, they will not lie. If you can cause no harm or no good to them, or do kot offer something they like (that can be companionship) you will be lied to. They say the true measure of a man is how he treats someone that can do him no harm or no good. Well the chinese as a general majority demonstrate if they are not afraid of you or paid by you they have no concern for you and will lie and mislead you for reasons of personal ego. I expected more from china, but they are not trustworthy in the slightest. And it feels like they are actually trying to make you disapointed all the time. There is ALWAYS an angle. Nice article, but way too apologetic. Facts be facts.

    • This as true as the sun will rise tomorrow. Never trust the Chinese. They lie without blinking. Even worse, they have no secrets, so they lie together. Shocking people.

  3. Pingback: Chinese Honesty is All Upside Down | Cup of Zhou

  4. Oh, Gina goes there! Dangerous territory – love it. Ummmmmm… good advice. Especially in business. Know your legal rights (not many) and make triple sure you are as protected as you can be. It’s a jungle out there and foreigners are easy prey. Trust no one on the business side.

    In my personal life, I really trust my Chinese friends. I think good friends – true friends – can be trusted even more than in the West. But it will take years to develop to develop a friendship like that.

    • I knew this could be controversial 😉 But it seems to mirror your experience, Zhou.
      Building trusting relationships always takes time, but even more so when very different cultures are involved. The typical short expat assignment of 2-3 years and often a lack of interest from expats in the Chinese culture is not a good foundation…