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On the road in China

The international language of (food ingredients) business? English…sorry, Mandarin

By Shane Starling in Shanghai , 28-Jun-2012
Last updated on 28-Jun-2012 at 12:25 GMT

This week’s Food Ingredients Asia-China (FIC) expo in Shanghai had ‘Asia’ in its name but don’t be fooled by the moniker – this is very much a Chinese show (at least on the exhibitor side); and a vast one that demonstrates the variety, volume and sheer force of the Chinese ingredients industry.

It also demonstrated that while English may be the international language of business, it is certainly not the only one; especially on the Sino Peninsula where an inability to engage in commerce in Mandarin is almost always instant death to any prospective business.

Of the almost exclusively Chinese exhibitors among the 800-or-so at the three-day show, some had English speakers in their teams, but often at a level that would not permit business to be done.

So if your company is serious about trading there without employing Chinese nationals, or establishing local offices, or employing others that are fluent in Mandarin (Cantonese is much less frequently used),  you may want to think again. Even a translator may not be enough - although ours was invaluable. 謝謝 谢谢 (thank you) Amanda.

If you think that its predominance will mean all nations will come to English in the end, consider that  The New York Times this week launched a Chinese-language version, as it hopes to tap the 500m Chinese internet users – about one third of the country’s population and still rising rapidly.

Talking business

At the show, Food and food supplement manufacturers seeking nutrient and ingredient solutions from the likes of South Africa, Norway, Japan, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Brazil, India and Russia all affirmed the importance of local language knowledge.

“The Chinese are smart and open business people,” a representative of a European dairy firm said. “ So they will not reject business opportunities because of one factor alone but this is not India or Germany where English might as well be a first language. Companies do themselves a massive disservice by not being able to communicate in Mandarin.”

Exceptions to this rule may only be apparent via the larger Chinese suppliers like Shanghai probiotics specialist, BioGrowing, that may have fluent English speakers in their staffs: Either Chinese passport holders or ‘imports’.

The handful of ‘western’ suppliers that had staked out a stand at the show like Draco Nutritional Products, Aker BioMarine, Decas Cranberry and BioGaia all had Chinese staff present.

“This show has been amazing for us,” said AkerBiomarine business development VP, Tim de Haas of the krill supplier’s three-day show experience. “We now just wait for the official approval for the ingredient from the Chinese government.”

For US companies, the US government’s Agricultural Trade Office had a booth to promote the services it offers to assist American companies in their efforts to export food products into China, including language assistance.

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