Drunk on the Job

The Art of the Business Deal Requires Heavy Drinking

November 15, 2001

BEIJING -- With China's formal entry into the World Trade Organization this past week, it will now have to play by the rules. Doing business will require strict adherence to international agreements and conflicts will be settled by dispute-resolution, not government meddling.

But what will still count most in business is personal relationships. And more often than not, those relationships are built on a rigorous and time-honored system of hard-core, wholesale swilling of alcohol.

"You can't rely on the legal system to solve problems," said Chase Bossart, who runs a company in Beijing that sells waste water treatment equipment. "You need strong relationships to solve problems. A lot of that character judgment is done through the plying of alcohol."

Bossart, 31, who describes himself as "a vegetarian non-drinker," said that on a typical four-day business trip in which he might be trying to woo a potential customer, he has no choice but to get drunk eight times.

"Most of the time, you don't have anything in the morning. The business happens over lunch and dinner," he said. "After a business trip, I'm exhausted."

In the absence of a reliable legal system, many Chinese business people want to deal only with those they can trust. In wine, they believe, is truth.

"For some customers, if we didn't drink, we couldn't have done the deal," said Thierry Nath, 35, whose company sells construction equipment throughout China. "One boss of a construction company believes the truth comes out when you drink. He said it's the only way he can assess if we're serious and honest."

Building that trust comes through a series of get-to-know-you banquets, lubricated with vast amounts of liquor. Once, Nath says, he was forced to drink so much that he couldn't work for three days afterwards.

"It's a process," said Bossart. "It's not like you get drunk once and get the deal. You need to illustrate you're dependable, dealing straight."

Those who simply can't drink have to find someone to take their shots for them. Once, when Nath was on a diet, his business partner had to drink twice as much. Some companies and government agencies have people whose job description is primarily to drink for the boss.

To be sure, as China's economy privatizes and competition sharpens, business decisions are turning less on such subjective factors. Both Nath and Bossart said dealing with privately-run companies requires far less drinking than dealing with government agencies or state-run enterprises.

Business people in the private sector "want the best quality and the best price," said Nath. "They know in the end, the more entertainment there is, the higher the price will be."

The business of drinking is highly choreographed and always centered around a meal. People do not drink unless they are making a toast or being toasted. In a larger group, there is usually a primary host, whose task is to make speeches and toast the table, and a secondary host, whose task is to toast people individually.

"If you have a big banquet, you're in trouble," said Nath. "Once there was one banquet with about 20 people. I was flat by the end of the evening. I had to be carried to my apartment."

The liquor of choice is always baijiu, a fiery spirit distilled from sorghum or corn that is up to 60 percent alcohol. Next to the shot glass is usually a larger glass for beer and another glass for wine. Waitresses keep all three glasses full, and toasters can choose which spirit they would like to toast with.

But when it comes to actually drinking, there is no fancy etiquette -- no sniffing, no swirling, no deep pondering. It's a simple act of bringing the glass to your lips and tilting your head.

"The drinking method is really a chug-a-lug method," said Bossart. "For example, if we're drinking wine, (the toaster) will say, 'OK, now everyone, down half the glass!"'

Chinese select spirits not so much for the taste but for the alcohol content and the price. The more you spend, the more sincere and respectful you appear.

Mao Tai is China's most famous baijiu brand and can cost up to $80 a bottle. Said to have originated in the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago, Mao Tai was a favorite of Premier Zhou Enlai, who used it to toast President Richard Nixon when he made his historic trip to Beijing in 1972 to normalize relations between the two countries.

Zhou was so fond of Mao Tai, he told Nixon, he downed 25 shots in a row while on the Long March, the 6,000-mile retreat of Chinese Communist forces in the mid-1930s, and drank 37 shots in welcoming Chinese soldiers home from the Korean War.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, a four-year study once found that drinking Mao Tai can prevent cirrhosis of the liver.

The business does not end with the meal. The host is usually expected to treat his clients to yet more entertainment.

"After the banquet, someone will say, 'should we go sing or have a bath?"' said Nath.

Translation: karaoke or spa?

At the Backingham Recreation Plaza, Beijing's largest and most luxurious spa, business peaks after dinner, said manager Bu Mingde. Customers spend on average $75, equivalent to the monthly wage of many workers in China, for a few hours of sauna, massage and relaxation. He said clientele consists mostly of corporate executives and higher-level government officials.

Karaoke establishments, on the other hand, have seen better days.

"People got bored of karaoke," said Nath. "Lately, there's also the business facial."

While young ladies massage lotions into your pores, it's yet another opportunity for bonding.

"You're lying next to each other and you can say what you want," he said. "You don't have the pressure of the face to face."

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