The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies – Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ means “to eliminate the source of strength”

To function successfully in the Greater China Region, and therefore maximise your business success it is crucial to know how to recognise and respond effectively to the 36 Chinese Strategies. Knowledge of the Chinese negotiating culture, which means how the 36 Chinese Strategies are used, is your greatest asset.

One of the 36 Chinese Strategies used is Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪 means “to eliminate the source of strength.”

When Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪 is used on you, the strategist carefully uses the strategy to attack a valuable resource. The strategist has done their research and is fully aware you do not have a backup for this most significant resource. Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪 is specifically about your ‘source of power’ being eliminated. When conducting business with China, if you are not a Mandarin speaker, you will definitely be faced with a language barrier. Even though there are many people in China who have experienced a Western education, there is still a large part of the population which has limited English. To deal with this language barrier foreign companies often employ a Chinese staff member.

Imagine the company you manage is a training organisation that specialises in project management and other areas focused on human resources. You have completed your market research, and it is apparent the skills the training organisation you manage are highly sought-after in China. Your company is quite large and has solid resources, so you therefore feel that your size will protect you from any strategies put in place by Chinese companies to extract your highly sought-after intellectual property. You have employed one Chinese staff member, who you feel is very capable and also very loyal to you, and so you are confident they will not leave for some years.

Your company is too big for a Chinese company to compete with, and therefore your Chinese competitors feel you are ‘too powerful to engage directly’, so they apply Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  to ‘undermine your foundation and attack your source of power’. You do not realise that, in this case, your ‘source of power’ is your Chinese staff member, and you have no backup if this staff member leaves the company. They are yoursource of power’ because your Chinese staff member does all of your translations and interpretations. They are also a significant component in your China visits, to help you with meetings and other cultural and linguistic areas. Your Chinese staff member has translated your training materials, so they know all the intricate details of the courses. Most of your client base is in the hospitality area, in large hotel chains in Shanghai, and your Chinese staff member has developed solid ‘guanxi’ with many of these people.

On one of your trips to Shanghai your competitor strategically puts Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  in place and begins to ‘attack your source of power’ by encouraging your Chinese staff member to work for their company. Your competitor has been strategically researching your progression in the China market, and has waited until the right time to offer your Chinese staff member a position in their company. They offer an attractive salary combined with excellent incentives. Your competitor is aware your Chinese staff member has their family in Shanghai, and that they come from the generation of the ‘one child family policy’, and therefore this person has a high level of responsibility towards looking after their family. Your competitor offers them a position in Shanghai with a once-a-year offshore professional development course for a period of five days in the country of their choice. For your Chinese employee this is an offer too good to refuse, and they accept the position. By doing this, your competitor has applied Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  and eliminated ‘your source of power’.


What to do when Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪 is applied on you 

In this situation, without your key resource, your business in China will suffer. Your competitor now has your Chinese staff member, who is someone who knows your training material and has strong ‘guanxi’ with your contacts. This will create a significant deficit for your business, and it will be difficult in the short-term for your training organisation to operate successfully in China.

There is no doubt that having a Chinese staff member to assist you in dealing with your clients and contacts when you travel to China is a great asset. For you to guard yourself against Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  being successfully applied on you, it is a good idea not to position your Chinese staff member as your ‘source of power’. Remove the focus from them as being such a key resource by delegating some of the critical tasks to other people. It is often easy to get caught up in allowing your Chinese staff member to assist you with everything to do with China. Having some understanding of Mandarin is a great asset. However, if you have no time to learn Mandarin, it is a good idea to learn the basics – which is to pronounce Pinyin. When you understand Pinyin you can read Chinese names, street signs, and many other things that are written in Pinyin. Even though it appears to be a good idea to get your Chinese employee to do some or all translating of materials, to guard yourself against Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  it would be clever to outsource all translation jobs which include your training materials. Although this may be slightly more expensive, in the long-term it is beneficial because it means that your Chinese staff member is not fully versed in all the language, concepts, and methodology of your training materials. To further guard yourself against Strategy Nineteen – ‘Steal the firewood from under the pot’ 釜底抽薪  being applied, when your Chinese staff member is diligently developing ‘guanxi’ with the hotel managers and other relevant people, you need to be attending all of the meetings with them, to develop your own ‘guanxi’. This is not a time to be complacent; rather it is a time to keep abreast of everything that is going on around you.

For more information on the 36 Chinese Strategies read ‘Tame the Tiger – Negotiating from a position of power’, ‘Deceive the Dragon – Negotiating to retain Power’, ‘Lure the Tiger – Negotiating in confronting circumstances’, ‘Bewilder the Dragon – Negotiating amongst confusion’ and ‘Endure the Tiger – Negotiating to gain ground‘. These books contain practical examples of the 36 Chinese Strategies, which are known to be the essence of Chinese business practices. The books are a great read for people who want to understand how to  confidently conduct business with Chinese people, and who are interested in learning strategies to be better negotiators in any environment.

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