A Name Card is Worth a Thousand Words

4 min read.


Scenario: You are on a business trip in China and your business partner brings you along to a lunch or dinner session with five other business partners. When everyone is introducing themselves, you will realise a common conversation thread that revolves around how they are friends of so-and-so. This business partner has a client who is a good friend of Jack Ma, that business partner is a distant relative of some big shot in the Central Government. Oh, really?

In China, generally, trust is not given until it’s earned. This means that at an initial meeting, people discount 50 to 70 per cent of someone’s achievements or network. Also, the Chinese place a lot of emphasis on hierarchy, so in a way, his or her achievements and network will be largely determined by how much influence or decision making power he or she has.


One way to assess this is by looking at a person’s name card very closely, because it gives you a rough gauge where he or she stands on the BS meter, and how much decision-making power he or she possesses. For an individual who works in the government or an SOE (State-Owned Enterprise), it is not unusual for this person to represent more than three organizations (i.e. you will see three lines of organization names on this person’s name card). The first line is typically the “oh-my-god” line, like a provincial/ city government, a Fortune 500 SOE, or a well-known international organization. The focus however should be placed on the last few Chinese characters of the organization name followed by his/her position.

If an individual works in the government or government-related entity, a general rule of thumb is to map this person back to the national government scale, i.e. 科 (Sectional level), 处(Divisional level), 司/局/厅 (Department/ Bureau level), 部(Ministerial level), 国 (National level).

Here are two examples (please note that this is an over-generalization but can be a good indication):

  1. The Chairman of the subsidiary of an extremely large SOE could be no more than 处 divisional level.
  2. The 旅游局长 (Chairman of Tourism Board) of a third tier city could be no more than 处 divisional level, even though the “局” departmental/bureau level in his or her title is misleading.


For SMEs, you should speak to the business owners to make the conversation count. For larger businesses, aim for at least VP level executives; otherwise, you will have to go through the long route. If Person A’s influence is lower, it is likely that the process of reporting upwards might take a while. If anyone in the reporting line loses interest, then the conversation dies.

The next time you are invited to a lunch or dinner meeting, bear in mind to take a closer look at the name cards that you have exchanged with all of your new contacts. Follow the steps and you are all good to make and an initial judgment of an individual’s real influence.

Good luck in analysing your next name card!