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Updated: 14 Dec 2020

Scientists and Bureaucrats – Orientation Issues

China Australia case

This negotiation case is published with permission from Dr Bob March's excellent book "Chinese Negotiator".

by Dr Bob March


This case study involves attempts to set up a bilateral scientific research arrangement involving Chinese scientists and Australian government representatives based in the nation’s capital, Canberra. The discussions are ongoing.

Three face-to-face meetings between Chinese and Australians have already been held, the first in the United States in 1999 and the subsequent two in Europe in 2001 and 2003. The setting, each time an international scientific conference held every two years, has been used by the parties as an opportunity to meet and discuss the bilateral agreement.


With the initial contact in 1999 involving no more than discussion concerning areas of mutual interest, the Australians felt no need to take into account cross-cultural considerations. They found the Chinese quite Westernized in their approach to discussions, and nonscientific discussion focused on the then-forthcoming Olympic Games in Sydney.

The Australians regarded the rapport that developed between the two parties as being between scientific colleagues, rather than government representatives. At the conclusion of the conference, it appeared to the Australians that both parties would investigate the formalizing of an agreement on the exchange of scientific information and then share the discoveries of further research.

When they met again in 2001, the parties still seemed enthusiastic about cooperating and indicated that they had in-principle support from their superiors. Following that year’s meeting, the Australians wrote several times to the Chinese in a bid to move things forward, but received only formal replies.

Two things should be noted here: first, that the Australians were trying to initiate business between their department (on behalf of the Australian government) and the Chinese government; and, second, that they attended the conferences for the purpose of work-related self development and not at the behest of the government.

Unresolved Issues

Essentially, all logistical and practical issues of the proposed effort remained unresolved at the start of the third meeting. Both sides had exchanged views and agreed, in principle, to cooperate by mutually making resources available in an effort to bring their hopes for joint research to fruition. However, no formal agreement had been reached.

Notwithstanding, the Australians remained eager to obtain a formal agreement. The Australian team organized the 2003 meeting. While both parties had signaled their intention to attend the 2003 conference, it was only some six weeks before the event that they agreed to have a formal meeting during the conference.

Max Wran, who took the initiative at the third meeting, is not a scientist and so has only limited ability to contribute and is essentially regarded as a support figure. But, with a background in industrial advocacy, he had developed a reputation as a no-nonsense person. Accompanying him was Kevin Porter, a scientist and the one who integrates any learning from the conferences into the department’s operational framework.

Australian Blunder

The meeting took place over two afternoons. No agenda was prepared nor was an interpreter used, since the Australians believed the Chinese representatives had a sufficient grasp of English. The meeting, which the Australians expected to run for about two hours, was loosely chaired by Wran and conducted as a fireside chat.

Following the exchange of pleasantries and discussion on the progress of the conference, Wran steered the conversation in the direction of research cooperation. The Chinese, who agreed that the suggestions put forward were valuable, made many positive statements of support before digressing to discuss sightseeing. Wran, becoming noticeably agitated and increasingly directive in his comments, used the odd profanity to emphasize his point.

Porter noticed that the Chinese were taken back by the crude display, although they made no comment, and the first afternoon eventually ended amicably enough after two-and-a-half hours. The next morning, Porter apologized to the Chinese for Wran’s outbursts and confirmed that a second afternoon meeting would be held. The Chinese appeared very understanding, but Porter sensed their enthusiasm had waned significantly.

During the second afternoon’s meeting, scheduled to last two hours, discussion of the morning’s conference proceedings was interrupted after forty minutes by the Chinese, who left for another appointment. Nothing had been agreed to or signed. The Chinese apologized, saying that the dialog should be resumed as soon as possible. In a seemingly conciliatory manner, Wran agreed and said he would be in contact and get the ball rolling.

Interpreting Events

The Australians, believing that an arrangement with the Chinese would be formalized in 2003, had expected a real negotiation during which they would convince the Chinese to commit to joint research. Wran’s principal motivation (he later confided to Porter) was the number of trips to China he believed the project would give him.

The Australians adopted a laissez-faire approach to the apparently important meetings, on the assumption that, as both parties were attending an international conference, formality could be disregarded for the side meetings. With no formal or informal agenda prepared or discussed, meetings were held in the context of “let’s talk when we get the chance.”

Wran’s belief that he could steer the meeting toward a positive outcome, using an informal approach and bullying tactics, was not borne out.

The apparent avoidance of specifics by the Chinese at each meeting and their failure to reply to follow-up letters indicate that they were no longer interested in cooperating with the Australians. Although discussions had been friendly on the surface, Wran’s displays of temper and tactical maneuvering had been too unfriendly and unprofessional for the Chinese.

Interviews with the Australians outside the meetings indicated lack of focus on specific issues. There were no statements about the benefits that might accrue to the Chinese. The assumption was that the Chinese were only interested in the quality of scientific information, not its commercial aspects. Failure to include such elements in early discussions perhaps had left the Chinese cold on the idea of combined research.

As of this writing, nothing has been agreed to; there is only recognition that working together would be mutually beneficial. The Australians have yet to engage formally official government channels and have no idea of the extent, if any, of government support for their Chinese colleagues.

The Australians’ approach to their discussions with the Chinese was not sensitive to the latter’s views regarding age and social hierarchy. In 2003, Wran was sixty-one years old and second-in-charge of his organization, while Porter was forty-three. The Chinese scientists were in their early forties (but the Australians did not know their ranks). Given the age and senior position of the Australian lead negotiator, the Chinese may well have been concerned that he was not of sufficient status to engage in serious discussions.

Suggested Fix

To end this impasse, the Australians might initiate formal representations to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. Such an approach would help speed up negotiations, and the Chinese scientists might then agree to visit Australia, where local hospitality could enhance the chances of a positive outcome.

The Australians might also consider including neutral parties in negotiations. Outside support and recognition may help improve the credibility of the Australians in the eyes of the Chinese. As both sides are linked to an international scientific community that meets every two years, such a strategy easily could be managed.


Without access to the Chinese version of events, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from this case. However, it is clear that the Australians were ill prepared to negotiate with their Chinese counterparts. They assumed no research or preparation was needed, simply because meetings took place on neutral territory. Adding to the difficulties was the assumption on the part of Wran that his personal and conflict-resolution styles would overcome all obstacles.

Additionally, by failing to demonstrate cross-cultural awareness, the Australians offended the Chinese, who simply walked away from the discussion. Wran’s cowboy strategy was unsuitable for forging new relationships and negotiating a venture with the Chinese. Porter believes that the goodwill built up previously is in jeopardy and even may have been lost.

Porter has been in contact by e-mail with one of the Chinese scientists, on a personal level. However, there has been no formal correspondence with the Chinese since 2003. While the Australians believe themselves still to be serious about engaging the Chinese in this venture, with no understanding of how the Chinese are thinking it seems unlikely that they have any idea regarding how to proceed.

So, is it overstating the case to call the 2001 initial encounter a negotiation? The Australians believe not. They view those discussions as a successful prelude that had gone a long way toward establishing common ground between the parties.

Be that as it may, momentum has been lost for a number of reasons. Wran and Porter did not work together as a team. Wran, overconfident about his abilities as a professional negotiator, was not able to accept feedback on his style or undertake a postmortem on why things turned out the way they had.

It is intriguing to speculate what lesson Qing of Chando might have foisted on the Australians.

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