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When Foreign Minister Penny Wong met China Foreign Minister Wang Yi the Australian media reported his comments as “demands”.

In fact, Wang Yi spoke of changes China hoped would contribute to improving the general relationship. Prime Minister Albanese rebuffed Beijing over the list of so-called ‘‘demands’’.

This “rebuff” reflected a substantial misunderstanding of what was said by Wang Yi and Albanese duplicated the same mistakes that Western businessmen often make in China. It was a master class in misinterpretation, which, in this case, has long-term political impacts. In business, the same type of misinterpretation also has significant impacts.

This confusion often happens because English speakers tend to soften requests, using “could you please…”. Chinese language lacks these constructions and speakers often use simple verbs such as “come” whether they are speaking in Chinese or English. This gives the impression of a brusque command rather than a request.

People who have lived and worked in China soon learn to ignore this brusque language. They understand it is not a signal of impoliteness, but that it stems from the differences in grammar construction.

We chuckle at small misunderstandings but in a business meeting the potential for significant misunderstanding is increased as the demands of language become more complex. The solution is to make full use of your translator or interpreter to ensure what you say is what you actually mean to say. It is also essential to make sure you understand not just what is said, but what is meant by what is said.

The Australian media and the Prime Minister’s (mis)understanding of Wang Yi’s comments illustrate the dangers that we all face when working in China. The prolonged absence from China created by covid has resulted in both rusty language and relationship skills.

I recently attended two webinars. They were both about doing business in China, but the two approaches were very different.

One webinar was delivered by the Singapore Business Federation. Speakers were all from a Chinese background with substantial business in China. Let’s call this a Chinese approach. In the second webinar, all the speakers were European. For can call this a Western approach.

The Western approach focussed on the transactional mechanics of doing business. There was a lengthy discussion on how to set up an e-commerce venture. This included the mechanics of web sites, social media platform choices and payment gateways. There is certainly a place for this, but it is more a HR training course for managers rather than a strategic guide to maintaining and growing business in China.

The Chinese approach had a heavy focus of maintaining and building the relationships that underpin successful business in China. The emphasis was on long-term engagement and the rewards that flow from staying in China through thick and thin.

The focus was on ways to show support for business partners, customers and clients. The Chinese approach recognises that commitment to long-term business is rewarded both by customer loyalty and the regulatory environment.

Businesses that walk away from China when times are hard find it very difficult to re-establish themselves when times are good. They lose both their customer base and the goodwill of local authorities, which play a major role in the implementation and enforcement of regulations at the local level.

It’s commonly accepted that good China business depends upon developing good relationships. Long lunches, numerous moutai toasts and the elaborate gift giving courtesies around business all attest to the importance of maintaining these relationships, but for many outside of China these relationships lack substance. Often they are learned dance-steps, tolerated but without genuine meaning.

It takes a crisis such as covid to stresstest the relationship.

Do you still inquire about the wellbeing of your key contacts and their families, or have your inquiries shifted to questions about the resumption of supply and trade for your business? Trade will resume, but it may not be on the same terms as before if your questions have revealed you have greater concerns about profits than about health.

If your relationship is tested and found to be just a wine and meat friend then you can expect it to be much more difficult to grow business back to pre-covid levels.

We don’t want to say that one approach is the best, but on balance it’s the maintenance of long-term relationships as discussed in the Chinese approach that is particularly significant in the covid environment in China. Without these relationships there is a reduced probability of business ventures succeeding or restarting.

The transactional mechanics of business – the Western approach – are important and for many this simple trade relationship will be adequate. But for longer-term business growth it is the Chinese approach that makes it easier to overcome barriers and the rusty language missteps.