There is no such thing as 'China expert'

Shekhar Khanna
Navigating the ever-changing landscape of the Chinese market can be challenging. Being adaptive, pursuing competitive advantage, and immersing oneself in the culture is the key.
Shekhar Khanna

China is open again, and recovering from COVID-19, and global business meltdown impact. Many of you may be wanting to enter/re-enter China for professional, or personal reasons. Whether you are newbie or a veteran for many years, I am hoping some of these reflections could act as a book-mark to navigate and thrive your China journey with buoyancy, and optimism.

Yes, it may sound impolite, but it's true. I am a media and advertising professional working in China for only six years, but no year has been the same since 2017. Quite literally!


Nobody had heard about Douyin/TikTok. Back then, people didn't even know about short video. Suddenly, in 2018 Douyin became so popular, and it became everyone's favourite. Soon the craze spread both within and outside China. Its unique algorithm makes it irresistible to put down the mobile phone, as it allows you to binge on your favourite content.


Livestreaming was largely unheard. Barring few gamers, it was totally new concept for most commoners like us. And yet, out of the blue, livestreaming started growing in China. Pandemic hit China, and when most of us couldn't go out due to restrictions, it was livestreaming that started mushrooming. Brands started appointing KOLs (key opinion leaders), celebrities alike, who would use livestream to sell and entertain their customers. Then, and now livestreaming has become a big practice.


Social commerce was already a hot buzzword in 2020 and it continues. These two years were the toughest in China, but that didn't deter from new innovations, new platforms, new media to emerge. Group-buying behavior/app Pinduoduo became such a rage that the company even started its sister app Temu in US markets, and it is doing well.


AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning) disrupted our lives, and while we speak it is listening, writing, translating, creating, drafting, editing our work. It is so pervasive in our daily lives, that we can't possibly imagine.

The above is only an illustration from my experience in advertising. You might have experienced similar changes in other industries as well. Thus, every year is a new year in China, and one can remain an expert only for a short period of time. To continue to be an expert, we need to be continuously agile, adaptive, learn new ways of doing business in China.

5 personal reflections

Reflection 1

Don't be an expert, instead become a life-long LEARNER.

The next time you meet any client or if your future employer asks you, why should I hire you or give you a job in China, just tell them China is the most dynamic market in the world, and there is no such thing as being an expert. Only the ones who have an open mind, who is willing to continuously adapt is an expert. Because what worked last year, may not work next year.

Reflection 2

Everything is POSSIBLE, but nothing is easy.

This is because the systems, the processes in China are quite organized and structured vs many other developing countries. This self-realization has been helpful for me both in personal development and professional transformation. China teaches us to be more structured, more organized in everything we do, and to focus on the execution details with same passion and vigor, as much as we focus on the big strategy.

Reflection 3

Instead of competing, pursue your own competitive ADVANTAGE. Chinese market is a deep, wide blue ocean. So, when it comes to growing your business in China or finding more marketing opportunities, don't think in traditional ways. Traditional marketing approaches taught us to have a competitive advantage, but in China the market is so big, so dynamic that you don't need to always think of just having a competitive advantage. Instead think of what your own unique strengths are. There is a room for everyone to grow, provided you can be focused.

Reflection 4

You can never be adequately PREPARED for China.

What works in the West, may not necessarily work here. What works in the East also may not work here. China is different from the rest in the sense that the government policies, media and business platforms, urban market planning constantly gets adapted, or upgraded here. Due to the sheer size, dynamism and the speed at which this change happens, the boundaries of business keep shifting. Thus, it is recommended not to over prepare, instead keep an eye on the change and charter your course accordingly.

Reflection 5

Language is a barrier, but not an OBSTACLE.

Honestly, there is no excuse to not learn the language. And it is said that once you speak Chinese, you experience China in a totally different way. But I do know many (I am guilty too) who didn't learn the language but still thrived. If you have still decided to not learn the language, then compensate this gap with adding tons of local nuances, get yourself fully immersed in the local cultural scene beyond your work scope. On the outside, China is seen as a tough market to crack, but on the inside, if you genuinely adapt to the local scene, the Chinese universe conspires to embrace and succeed you in more ways you can ever imagine.

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