The Annual Dinner – Nian Zhong Ju Hui

The cultural and ethnic homogeneity of China is self-evident.  But imagine a holiday that has thousands of years of tradition, is central to your culture, and is celebrated with equal enthusiasm by every last citizen.  And it’s apolitical!!!

That is Spring Festival.

There is no wrong on this one.  There are no court cases about what can be displayed on public property.  There’s no parsing of words to keep everything politically correct.  Everyone – without exception – celebrates it.  And because it is completely apolitical the companies get to join in the fun as well.

Every company holds an annual dinner to kick off the Spring Festival season.  Every employee attends.
Every company holds an annual dinner to kick off the Spring Festival season. Every employee attends.

For companies that serve the retail trade the Spring Festival retail season has all of the importance the holiday selling season has to U.S. retail.  For all companies operating in China, however, Spring Festival is also a season of gift-giving and celebration.

Chinese culture is a gift-giving culture.  I don’t have the space in this post to delineate all of the protocols involved but suffice it to say that the Chinese give a lot of gifts.  If you’ve happened to witness a flight returning to China with overseas tourists you’ve undoubtedly noticed the bags and bags of duty free goods being loaded onto the plane.  For the most part those are not for personal consumption.  They are gifts for relatives, friends, and colleagues.

China's is a gift-giving culture.  This gift was given to me by the local government - at Christmas time.
China’s is a gift-giving culture. This gift was given to me by the local government – at Christmas time.

At Spring Festival employers give gifts (I will cover bonuses in a future blog.) to their employees, their customers, and other key business partners, including the government bureaus they work with on a regular basis.  (Remember, no lawyers but a big government.)  We normally give a set of glasses with that year’s zodiac animal embossed on the bottom.  If it is a national company and it doesn’t make a product suitable for personal use it will often give its widespread customers a gift indigenous to the province in which it is based.  (e.g.  A certain kind of fruit or local craft, for example.)

Even the government gives gifts.  I often receive gifts from the government officials responsible for our industrial zone in thanks for being a good corporate citizen, providing jobs, and, of course, paying taxes.  The practice of government gift-giving, however, has come to a screeching halt since the new administration came to power and issued what came to be know as the ‘eight rules.’  As part of their effort to make the government more transparent and accessible to the average citizen, and to stamp out corruption and frivolous spending on excessive dining and entertaining, the central government has put the kibosh on government gift giving at taxpayer expense.  (While some of these gifts went to employers, many went to other government officials, particularly those in a position to impact career paths.)

As part of our community outreach our employees work with the children at a local orphanage specializing in children with brittle-bone disease.  They are, of course, included in our dinner.
As part of our community outreach our employees work with the children at a local orphanage specializing in children with brittle-bone disease. They are, of course, included in our dinner.

This simple directive has had far-reaching impact on the Chinese economy and is, in fact, realigning entire industries.  The hospitality industry, in particular, has been hit hard.  Restaurants that once counted on a steady stream of government banquets and entertainment are scrambling to rebuild their customer base.  And this Spring Festival the calendar industry is in near collapse due to a memo published in October by the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China, reaffirming that no taxpayer funds should be spent on the purchase of printed gifts, including calendars.

The employees begin rehearsing for their annual dinner performances weeks in advance.  And it shows.
The employees begin rehearsing for their annual dinner performances weeks in advance. And it shows.

Companies take the Spring Festival center stage when they host their Spring Festival Annual Dinner.  Virtually every company holds one and every last employee is invited – and attends.  I honestly don’t know if attendance is typically mandatory but I can’t imagine an employee not attending.  In addition to missing out on a good meal, some fun entertainment, and a goodie-bag to take home, I would guess such an omission would score high on the Chinese scale of harbingers of bad luck.

My company’s practice is pretty typical.

There are traditional dramas but for foreigners the plot can be a little difficult to follow.
There are traditional dramas but for foreigners the plot can be a little difficult to follow.

We are a good-sized company and the factory operates 24/7/365.  Glass plants are built around their furnaces and furnaces are designed to run continuously.  We, therefore, have two identical Spring Festival dinners, usually one or two days apart so that all employees can participate and no one has to report to work afterward.

The ‘dinners’ actually start at 3:00 p.m. although no food is served before 6:00 p.m.  The time in between is primarily consumed by the employee talent show, during which individual employees or groups of employees play musical instruments, sing songs, or perform skits of their choosing.  The top manager, of course, kicks it all off with a short ‘state of the union’ address and best wishes for the new year, and there are games scattered throughout the show designed to make the senior management look ridiculous and thus give everyone a good laugh at the boss’ expense.  (It’s a humbling experience, I can attest.)

And the performances can be quite elaborate.
The performances can be quite elaborate.

But the real show belongs to the employees themselves.  And it would be difficult to overstate the enthusiasm and the dedication they bring to the task of putting on a show for their colleagues.  Employees with a particular musical talent tend to perform on their own but the singing and skits, sometimes serious but often comical, are often carried out by groups of employees.  Department performances are common, but not mandatory.  A group of young single men from different departments got together to perform their version of Swan Lake last year – tutus and all.  (If costumes are involved the company will pay the cost.)

There are several on-stage 'games' thrown in designed to make the senior management humiliate itself.  All in good fun, of course.
There are several on-stage ‘games’ thrown in designed to make the senior management humiliate itself. All in good fun, of course.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is the unwritten rule that department managers are expected to both participate and to humble themselves.  It’s a healthy process and in the six years I’ve attended these events I’ve never witnessed any behavior that would or should make anyone uncomfortable or embarrassed.  It’s all in good fun and treated as such by all.

No need to be serious, as these young lads reminded us.
For the employees there’s no need to be serious either, as these young lads reminded us.

 

 

The meal is generally sumptuous and follows a protocol not dissimilar to the family reunion dinner, which I will discuss in the next post.  Beer and wine are served although many choose not to drink and I have never witnessed any employee drinking more than he or she should.  No standing up on a table and telling the boss to go you-know-where.  The Chinese are simply too polite for that and somehow I don’t see them wasting free beer on what is likely to be wasted effort.  They’re too pragmatic.

Toward the end of the meal itself the members of the senior management team rise as a group and go from table to table – no exceptions – to toast the employees seated there, thank them for their hard work, and wish they and their families the best in the coming new year.  It takes some time but I, for one, think it’s a nice tradition and the employees seem genuinely appreciative.

And we do take some serious time to recognize employees and publicly hand out service awards.
And we do take some serious time to recognize employees and publicly hand out service awards.
Although sometimes it's hard to tell right away.  The Chinese are masters of the spoof.
Although sometimes it’s hard to tell right away. The Chinese are masters of the spoof.

After the management group has made the rounds the floor is open for others to do the same.  If you’re lucky, individual employees, or, more likely, departments, will come en masse to the head table to toast the management team.  And departments are likely to toast each other, particularly where there is a working relationship or some direct reliance involved.  The sales department, for example, will often make the rounds toasting the tables of the production employees and the shipping employees are likely to toast the folks in customer service.  (In case you’re wondering, alcohol is not mandatory.  I generally toast with orange juice.  Everyone is fine with that and no one has ever attempted to goad me into switching.)

And while this is all happening the most anticipated event of the whole day and evening begins – a progressive and seemingly endless series of raffles, uniformly known here as ‘lucky draws.’

We bring in the sales team from all over the country but since they don't have time to rehearse they typically perform a group singalong.  No one minds - as long as the order flow has been good.
We bring in the sales team from all over the country but since they don’t have time to rehearse they typically perform a group singalong. No one minds – as long as the order flow has been good.

Because it is a gift-giving culture, many of our employees, myself included, receive gifts from suppliers and other business partners throughout the year.  As an American company, however, we have strict and sincere policies about the acceptance of gifts that give even the appearance of potential compromise of the impartial conduct of our business.  We don’t make employees give the gifts back, since that would be offensive to the many business partners who are simply making a well-intended and culturally normal gesture.  But we do ask that our employees report the gifts and except for gifts of nominal value turn the gifts into the Human Resource department, which will include them in one of the Spring Festival dinner lucky draws.  (It’s a pragmatic compromise, to be sure, but everyone appears to be okay with it.)

The lucky draws are the highlight of the evening.
The lucky draws are the highlight of the evening.

And the company chips in as well, of course, and while not everyone walks away with a lucky draw prize there is a nice gift for everyone who attends (Last year we gave a nice backpack to everyone.) and the winners of the bigger lucky draws are generally quite thrilled with their winnings.  Last year’s grand prize winner walked away with a big screen television, for example.

In the early stages of the progressive draws, however, we normally have a wide range of prizes that we allow the lucky employee to choose from.  And I kid you not that I have seen all of the Apple Ipods sit on the prize table until all of the large bottles of cooking oil and five pound bags of rice have been claimed.

As I’ve said so many times, of all of the gifts China has bestowed upon me none has been greater than the gift of perspective.

In the end it's all about celebrating Chinese culture and creating the kind of company culture that our employees can be proud of.

In the end it’s all about celebrating Chinese culture and creating the kind of company culture that our employees can be proud of.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.