Living in China you meet all sorts of expats living here with varying degrees of Chinese language grasp/abilities. There’s a fine range of those who’ve studied Chinese both here and in their home countries to those who can barely scratch out a Ni hao (hello).
In terms of doing business in China David Dayton writes a great piece on this very issue.
Buyers always seek to cut costs and simply (not really but as compared to other things) learning Chinese goes such a long way! He developed a nice little list of reasons as to why it’s worthwhile to learn Chinese:
Learning Chinese will save you time in communications.
Learning Chinese will save you money in hiring translators.
Learning Chinese will save you time and money on projects as you’ll be able to be involved directly in negotiations and problem solving.
Learning Chinese will increase your value to your employer (or your own business). I can’t tell you how valuable knowing the language has been for my business–more important than any other one thing I’ve done besides physically being here.
English can get you further than you would believe in some of the bigger cities. Most factories employ someone with some English competency. But just as you should avoid trading companies (and other middlemen), why not help yourself and negotiate your own terms? Granted this will take a lot of work and a lot of effort but it’s worth it.
Remember also- just because business negotiations have been done in English, doesn’t mean you’ll win a court case in China if things break down with your supplier (and your documents are in English). I remember negotiating terms on a re-order for a client, and drafted a simple agreement (in English) that the supplier agreed to. He even chopped it with the companies red stamp making it “official”. After about 10 days and several phone calls later, I reminded the supplier of the agreement that he signed and chopped. He point blankly stated- “So what?” when I mentioned the chopped document that he signed. The issue was dropped and I tried a new tactic with this supplier (with varying degrees of success)
Being able to read Chinese documents (and possibly type them up) will help you in the long run. Take a class, make some friends, anything to learn some Chinese if you’re planning on doing business here. The efforts will be worth it
You can read David’s full piece here (highly recommended)-
D. Bruns, Ex. Director-CSIC