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A synthesis of two recent articles published by Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) gGmbH provide advice from luminaries – Charles Parton and Vijay Gokhale – both with exceptional experience engaging at the highest levels with the Chinese government, on how to negotiate with China.

It’s worth noting that the kind of pressure and control that Parton and Gokhale detail are much less likely to exist in the more humble context of university partnerships, but there are definitely some points that resonate with my own experience that I think others can learn from.

Setting the agenda

Both authors describe different approaches to setting the agenda of a negotiation.

Gokhale outlines the big picture and warns against the “mind games” associated with the narrative of China’s unstoppable rise. I would add to this the Orientalism of a mindset that ‘China’ is indeed a homogeneous and unknowable Other. as Gokhale notes, this perception of power and control is a narrative that the CCP strives to project. It is therefore important to ensure that you do not allow this mythos to shape your interaction.

Parton’s article is more detailed on specific tactics such as attempting to agree certain ‘principles’ that aim to “circumscribe negotiations before they begin”. I would agree that it is critical to recognise that these are the opening moves of the negotiation and may happen long before any plans to get the principals around a table.

I describe this as a ‘boiled or scrambled eggs?’ tactic – it is a powerful negotiating move in setting the agenda and thereby proscribing the choices that someone feels abled to make. Your instinct will be to respond within the boundaries that have been set for you – to accept eggs in some form.

But if you want bacon then you need reject the eggs entirely and reframe the discussion.

Remember who you are dealing with

Both Parton and Gokhale discuss at length the peculiarities of negotiating with Chinese actors and, the importance of remembering that, ultimately, it is the CCP that you are dealing with. They note that the negotiating brief may have been set by someone higher up in the Party structure, someone that maybe isn’t in the room, isn’t up an expert in your domain, or might be using this negotiation as one move in a wider strategy.

This is crucial.

To this I would add (as with any negotiation) the more information you have, the better your position. You need to try and uncover whether the person you are negotiating with is the decision maker or not, ideally you would know their government and Party rank and thereby gain a sense of their authority to make compromises. If the person you are dealing with is not the decision-maker, either find a way to access that person or at least try to understand what brief they have set for the negotiators.

Information is key and because the Party controls access to information, you are at a disadvantage.

Remember also that the Party is not as monolithic as it projects. The person you are talking to will have their own perspective, even if their room for manoeuvre is extremely limited. Further, as Gokhale notes, these parallel chains of command may actually weaken the Chinese side as they attempt to complete their instructions without full access to their superior’s thinking. Understanding who they are, what their priorities are and what constraints they are facing will help you to find an agreement.


Parton goes into fantastic detail of specific tactics that may be used to gain an upper hand in a negotiation.

He advises to “never start with an honest statement of your position”, and that the Chinese side will likely “dissemble about their own position”. He suggests that both sides build in “valueless concessions” that may be sacrificed with little impact, and that techniques such as time pressure, bad faith arguments and talking past each other, hinting at possible concessions and other tactics may come in to play.

Gokhale likewise discusses the way that time pressure can be used to unbalance the negotiation and potentially seek concessions.

Informal conversations

One thing that is often cited as specific to negotiations in China is the importance of informal conversations – and especially talking over dinner. It is therefore interesting that Parton notes “the British usually made progress when delegation heads met for a chat”, while Gokhale states “informal exploration of ideas with Chinese counterparts are usually a waste of time”.

I would side with Parton on this one.

Informal conversations are crucial parts of the overall negotiation. They may allow you to float an idea or possible concession more casually without needing to formally table it. More importantly though, they provide opportunity to get a better sense of the people you are negotiating with – in the less guarded moments at dinner you can get more of a sense of who they are and what motivates them.

Gokhale does make a crucial point here though – never mistake ‘informal conversation’ for ‘off the record’.

Security Concerns

While I prefer to emphasise shared humanity, do not mistake this for naivety.

Gokhale notes the importance of avoiding CCP-specific language even when it is harmless. Even tacitly endorsing concepts as “community for a shared future”, the “Belt and Road”, etc., are part of a larger strategy to shape global discourse and you should very carefully consider whether they are relevant to your specific agreement or not.

Parton makes an especially important point about security while travelling in China. Even if you trust the people you are meeting, the wider state security system has very explicit goals to access information and it is crucial to maintain your personal and IT security.

To these I would add – check the final text word by word for any subtle edits, changes, or translation errors that may have slipped in to the document ‘by accident’. Especially if you are exhausted and trying to meet a print deadline at 10pm.

Closing thoughts

Both articles emphasise a range of negotiating tactics and strategies.

Perhaps it is because I’ve spent the majority of my professional career in China but a lot of what they articulate seemed fairly obvious. While it would be lovely to believe that other negotiations always operate in good faith and with transparency, I just do not think that is the case.

Knowing your brief and objectives, understanding the big picture – especially finding as much information as possible about your interlocutor, not being intimidated by theatrics, using tactics to shape the agenda, bluffing, and making concessions where necessary. While China and the CCP are distinct entities with specific quirks, these are good advice for any high stakes negotiation.

The only other point to close is what Parton describes as the CCP seeking to “reinterpret the negotiation after the agreement has been inked”. I’d agree, but I’d reframe it slightly. Think of reaching an agreement as the start of a relationship. And relationships are ongoing processes that both sides need to pay attention to maintaining. So don’t take it for granted or else your partner may decide to look for a better deal.