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Networking 2.0 Series: Online Networking with Chinese Characteristics

by Bennett Voyles

August 23, 2017

Online networking

From the smoke signal to email, advances in communication have always had organizational consequences. In this four-part series, we look at how online social networks are beginning to change the way business is done. We looked first at what coaches and academics have learned about social capital in a virtual age and second, at what the latest research says about how to network. In this installment, we’ll look how online social networks are changing Chinese professional culture.

For a preview of how people will find work and make deals ten or 20 years from now, you could do worse than grab your smart phone and take a trip to China, where hundreds of millions of people are on a more or less constant virtual search for fun, bargains, and a better job.

“Younger Chinese especially are more connected online, especially through mobile phones, than their western counterparts. The result is younger Chinese spend more time networking in general and networking to find jobs via mobile devices than Americans and Europeans,” says Shaun Rein, author of the upcoming book The War for China’s Wallet and managing director of the China Market Research Group (CMR).

In some lines of work, this is already having consequences. Take recruitment: for Jeida Boussenina, recruitment manager for INS Global Consulting in Shanghai, recruiting still includes the occasional trade show visit, but these days, most of her work involves various kinds of online chatting.  “I don’t even call people anymore,” she says. 

In her daily search, Boussenina visits a number of sites, including LinkedIn, Chitu (Red Rabbit), 51job, Liepin, and most of all, WeChat, 900-pound gorilla of Chinese social networks.  WeChat is one of the world’s largest social media platforms. Over 938 million people belong to WeChat, 90% of whom are Chinese. Founded in 2010 by Tencent, the Chinese tech giant, WeChat has a significance in China today that is difficult to exaggerate: in 2016, WeChat users spent 48 minutes a day on the app, 5 minutes more than Americans spent on Facebook, according to Kantar Media. 

But Boussenina is not trying to reach the 938 million. Instead, she targets some of WeChat’s special interest groups, such as the Shanghai Food & Beverage recruiting group, or the Beijing F&B recruiting group, or groups of freelancers, groups of particular kinds of expats, groups focused on careers for women. There are social groups too, of every possible stripe – for people who love brunches, people who are interested in travel, people who want to practice Korean – most with 400-500 members, some of whom may be interested in hearing about job opportunities.

It’s very different than back home in France, Boussenina says. “In France, you don’t have a tool as powerful as WeChat. People have WhatsApp, but they’re not building communities. That’s what’s happening on WeChat,” she says. There are people she’s never met in person but speaks to every day in these groups.

Beyond finding candidates, WeChat is useful for building rapport with them. “It makes a connection with a candidate better than if it was just formal emails,” Boussenina says.

Just today, she says, she had found a candidate on LinkedIn, began a discussion with him on WeChat, and then invited him in for a chat in her office. By the time he got there, she says, he knew her face and had already chatted with her in real time.

“Chinese people are really suspicious, really protective of their privacy…. In China, you build trust before doing any business with Chinese people. If they don’t trust you, they don’t do business with you. If they don’t like you, they don’t do business with you,” she explains.

Boussenina’s approach isn’t unusual, according to Rein. “This shift to online has completely changed how companies need to recruit – they need to spend a larger proportion of recruiting budgets online. It has also impacted the executive search community – they have had to adopt online networking to find and reach out to candidates,” he says.

Another aspect of Chinese culture that is being reflected online is a preference for mixing business with pleasure. “WeChat is a show window of both personal and professional life for many people,” says Ma Lin, a Chinese translator now living in Germany.

“The lines are definitely blurred in China between business and personal when it comes to social media and networking,” agrees Rein. Even WeChat was originally just a platform that made it easier for friends to communicate but later evolved to the point where it is also a payment channel and a tool for business communication. “In China, you can never just be all pleasure or all work – everything is intermingled,” he adds.

Yingying Li, founder of Yingfluence, a San Francisco-based consultancy that specializes in executive coaching on cross-cultural communication, agrees that this tendency to blend the personal with the professional is very Chinese.

Some of these differences are embedded in the software design, users say. “Linkedin developed as a business communication tool so the interface is very clear and a bit dull. WeChat, on the other hand, also very clear, but carries many functions like video call, voice mail, sending document and files, setting up group chat and also sharing life/work moments,” says Lynn Li, a young IT worker in Beijing.

Being on WeChat is also inconspicuous. First, everyone is on it.  Although smaller and more specialized social networks are growing rapidly, WeChat’s popularity means being there can’t be read as a signal that you are looking for a new job, according to Li, in the same way that LinkedIn activity may be – an advantage that many employees of conservative companies appreciate. “They are so afraid of being judged,” she says.

Second, it’s designed to be more anonymous. WeChat only has the member’s photo and his or her posts, and doesn’t include information about their work experience, according to Lynn Li.

Getting the personal-professional mix right has been a challenge for LinkedIn, the biggest Western entrant to the professional networking market. Although LinkedIn is growing rapidly now in China, it’s struggled relative to other platforms, in part because of its rigidly professional focus, according to Li. The company has tried to launch a more Chinese-style product with Chitu.com (Red Rabbit), its Chinese-targeted sub-brand, but without much luck right yet.

At this point, Li believes the foreign giant still has a lot of work ahead of itself. “It’s really hard to say if professional social networking will be successful in China,” she says.

However, she acknowledges that this instinct for mixing business with pleasure may be among younger people. Already, many teenagers are migrating away from WeChat to QQ, another network sponsored by Tencent, according to Li. “They don’t use WeChat,” Li notes. “They stay on QQ.  They want a separate personal life with their own peer circles because their parents, their colleagues, their teachers — every generation — is on WeChat right now. So if there’s something they don’t want their parents to see, they’re better just communicating with QQ.”

And the difference between eastern and western preferences may change too, because the foreign influence on the supply may grow. A few years ago, many young Chinese techies studying in the US would stay after finishing their degrees to make their way in Silicon Valley, according to Li. Now, Li believes that the current generation of students, pulled by Chinese government incentives to encourage them to start businesses in China and pushed by the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies, almost all plan on going home after they complete their studies, bringing westernized networking preferences with them.

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