Michael Crain is the director of Bingham McCutchen‘s Beijing office and the founder of Chi Fan for Charity. He moved to Beijing five years ago as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Embassy. We sat down with him and his hearty laugh to talk about his business and charity endeavors.
When and why did you first come to China?
I first came to China in June of 2005 with the Secretary of Commerce. I was working as a political appointee as part of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. I came ahead of the Secretary to set up the meetings. I didn’t have a very deep knowledge of China when I came and I must say in 2005 I didn’t like it very much. It was Beijing in the summer in the middle of a heat wave. My job dealing with the Chinese government was very difficult and when I left in July I thought I was done.
In October the same year I was offered a chance to come back and fortunately my wife had been on multiple trips to China and loved it so part of me said, maybe I missed something. If she loved it so much, there must be something else to this place.
So what do you do now?
I’ve been working with Bingham McCutchen for nearly two years. A lot of our business here is helping U.S. companies learn more about investing and a huge part is explaining certain cultural aspects they aren’t familiar with. More and more we’re helping Chinese who want to invest abroad and that’s a huge cultural thing too. Explaining to the U.S. side that if a Chinese person says, “That’s great, let’s make a deal,” that doesn’t mean they want to do a deal right now, it could be months off. Explaining to the Chinese side, if an American says they’re ready to do a deal, they’re ready to do a deal. If a law firm writes a contract that’s a bonding agreement. In China, sometimes people will want to talk about a contract after its been negotiated, even after it’s already signed. Those business or cultural differences are interesting to watch.
How important is understanding culture in business?
Culture is a big part of doing business in China, far bigger than in any country I’ve dealt with. When you’re doing a deal, the people have to like you. It could make them millions and millions of RMB but if they don’t like you they aren’t going to do the deal. Their family name is tied is up, and I have to help Americans understand that. We say, “Oh it’s going to make us lots of money,” or if we believe in it we’ll make the deal but the Chinese aren’t that way—they have to feel comfortable with whomever they are dealing with.
Tell us about Chi Fan for Charity.
I’ve always been involved in charitable work. When I was at the embassy I didn’t have the time but when I left the embassy I talked to friends, said I’d like to get involved, and talked to people in the restaurant industry. Then I started talking to personalities or people in the community—people that knew a lot of people or whom a lot of people knew—and said would you host a table and get your friends to come?
It’s an easy idea because it’s what you do on a Saturday night anyway. I realized people liked to give, up to a certain point, but it’s not difficult to go to dinner with friends.
The first year  I had a goal of 10 restaurants and got 16 and it kind of took off from there. In 2010 it was 32. The one we held in November of last year was 40. We did it in Shanghai in October last year, had 26 there. We raised over 300,000 RMB in that one night that we split it among two charities that are doing good work.
Why do you think charity has not quite caught on in China?
I think that’s another cultural difference. There’s a viewpoint in China that if you take care of your own, then everybody gets taken care of. But there’s a growing segment of society that don’t have anybody to take care of them. Charity was always a part of what I did growing up because I had a family that encouraged it. That’s part of the philanthropic spirit thats ingrained in you as an American. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities and so I’ve always felt the need to give back.
Part of my hope for Chi Fan is that more Chinese catch on. It’s been mostly expat-community driven but more and more Chinese are getting involved because there is a great need here. I think at some point as a human being you realize that you have to start taking care of your own family but also of other people who don’t have the same access to health care or education. Until the government decides to take up and address those areas, there is always going to be a gap and if you’re in a position to help you should.
What is one of your favorite or most memorable China experiences?
I’ll mention two. One involves the Special Olympics and the other the Olympics.
I was part of a delegation that went to Shanghai in October 2007 during the Special Olympics. It was the first time I’d gone to any live event on a massive scale. I remember being proud to be there and seeing the athletes who’ve overcome a lot. The other countries’ delegations had come out of one corner but when the Chinese delegation came out, they came out from all four corners so there was this mass of red. What was surprising—especially knowing where China still is in the way people view those with disabilities—was that everyone was very excited, standing up and cheering them on because they were representing China. It didn’t matter if they had a disability—they were Chinese. That was cool to see.
I was also at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 2008 and for many delegations you can tell their country by the way they look. But what was amazing about the American delegation was that they were every single ethnicity and that’s when it hit me: that’s what it means to be an American. I’ve been told many times that you can live in China forever and never be Chinese but what’s great about the U.S. is that you can move there and day one you’re an American. It doesn’t matter where you came from or what you did before.
Has living here changed the way you view America?
There are some things that make it easier to live in China. There’s not an emphasis on using sex to sell things, which is great now that I’m a father. On the other hand, even though China is moving very fast, I still don’t get the feeling that most Chinese feel, “If I work very hard, I’ll succeed.” In the U.S. I think that belief is still there. Outside the financial crisis, I think generally people at their core believe if that if I work hard, I will succeed. If I have a good idea I can start a business and make my family’s life better. I don’t get a sense that most Chinese believe that. I think that the barriers to entry are very high.
That being said, I think that Chinese and Americans have the same goals. We want to build a comfortable life for our families and we want them to do well—it’s how we get there that’s sometimes different. Once you realize, “Okay, we have the same goal. How can we get there and make both of us or both of our countries happy?” We can both get there; we can both build better lives—but understanding the other side helps smooth the path.
You have children here in Beijing. How do you plan to raise them? Do you want them to be bilingual in the future?
They already are! I am looking forward to the day when they can be our mini-translators. We have two adopted twin daughters, they’re three-and-a-half right now.
I can see us going back to the U.S. for some formative years but I don’t think we’ll ever be done with China. I mean, the girls are Chinese. I want them to be bilingual and I want them to know that they have two cultures, two worlds that they can live in. I think that will only add to the understanding between our two nations. More and more children are being raised like that, and have friends on both continents. I’m interested to see their generation, growing up understanding both cultures. I’m excited to see that.