How businesses can ride the tiger and not fall off (骑虎难下 – qí hǔ nán xià)3 min read

26 February 2021 2 min read


How businesses can ride the tiger and not fall off (骑虎难下 – qí hǔ nán xià)3 min read

Reading Time: 2 minutes

One of my favourite Chinese idioms is “Riding a Tiger and trying not to fall off” (骑虎难下 – Qí hǔ nán xià).

It was first coined by a Chinese general and politician, Wen Jiao (溫嶠 – Wēn Jiào), in the Jin Dynasty during the third century. Wen built an army to sort out a rebellion in the distant reaches of his province.

Not long into the tour the group had bad set backs, and their supplies began to run out. They thought about giving up and going home. But if they disbanded, or turned back, the rebels would have ridiculed them, and caused even more disruption.

Wen convinced his general that the only option was to brace themselves and move forward. They were on the tiger and couldn’t get off.

They eventually crushed the rebellion.

Back to the present day, Geopolitics is getting more sensational. As the US-China tensions unfold things are going to get much more difficult for companies to manage their global businesses in China.

China’s economy too faces challenges. It is shifting gears with painful but necessary structural changes. So companies that have been enjoying punchy growth for a few years are now either coping with, or preparing for, a short-term hit on business performance as China’s economic slow down has its impact.

And yet the long-term outlook for China’s economy should be positive. A continent-sized economy and 1.4 billion people getting on and doing exciting things can only go in one direction.

But the opportunities are obscured by short-term tensions, making it hard for corporates to concentrate on them.

So what to do? Disband? Give up? Go home? That’s not really an option either.

Companies need to find a way of bracing themselves to stay on the tiger: continuing to do business in China, avoiding being perceived as taking sides by any one country, and trying not making short-term decisions at the expense of long-term growth opportunities in or with China.

This is not really about strategy. It’s about tactics, and holding on. Here are three tactical ideas that could help.

First, better coordination between corporate and China-market communications functions. Short-term and necessary corporate decisions in relation to China can be landed through better in-market and above-market coordination, and proactive articulation of a coherent narrative. Don’t leave it to the Chinese internet to make up its own mind without you.

Second, looking for cross-sector tie-ups with Chinese companies that can deliver short-term revenue. Take a look at any big Chinese corporate and you will be amazed at the diversity of businesses within it. Tech companies, for example, are keen to diversify into sectors where their huge data-sets can be leveraged. They are also looking for opportunities to expand globally.

Third, building relationships beyond “great meetings”, handshakes and nice photos.That means investing time to consolidate relationships across your business in China. For above-country executives this means going there regularly.

What do you think?

What’s your favourite Chinese idiom that captures life there at the moment?

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