Constructive criticism or an insult?
CHINA TIP 3 (week 18, 2008)

In the Western world and especially in the Netherlands, open exchanges of view and fair discussions are very common. This sort of verbal interaction has a positive positively interpreted connotation. It is a proof the discussion partner is interested in you and your opinions. 

How different this is in the Chinese society. Any confrontation directly showing disagreement or questioning the things said, will be interpreted as if you have second thoughts about the other’s personal experience or worst, about the person himself. Chinese counterparts feel attacked by receiving comments, this is a cultural issue. 
The term constructive criticism is therefore not very well known in China. 

So, introducing any contradicting opinion is a sensitive matter in China. Moment and situation are highly important factors that influence the outcome of your –probably- well meant remarks. 
When the expected result of a remark is uncertain or the timing isn’t perfect, we strongly advise to wait with providing feedback.

Whenever when the situation is urgent and immediate action and criticism is unavoidable, some golden rules can help making the best out of the situation. 

Realize your position towards your Chinese partner. In China seniority is valued more important than in the Western culture. A junior party seldom provides any comments at all. Try to discuss any sensitive matters privately and avoid bringing comments during a meeting or when third parties are around. Highlight the improvement following out of your remarks and also stress the personal advantages for the person related. Most important of all: smile when providing constructive critics. A nice smile always works.    

Even when following these instruction it’s to be expected people will feel offended. A common reaction is denying responsibility or influence. The ‘circumstances’ are outside the range of the person abilities. 

Just go along this line of argumentation. Do not pretend these were all personal ideas, but try to find a connection with the (company’s) culture, laws, profit margins and topics that suit the situation.  

Although it may seem as walking on a thin line, a well considered pragmatic mentality in the Chinese society will get you much further than the Dutch no-nonsense attitude.