Collaborating with Chinese partners in EU Research and Innovation Projects

Collaborating with Chinese partners in EU Research and Innovation Projects

Collaborating with Chinese partners

5 minutes read
14th October 2020

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Avatar_KaiKai Zhang

Project Manager

Kai is a Project Manager at Martel. From her experience working in China, the US, and now in Europe, she believes that communication has the power great enough to tear the world apart or bring it together. She aims to facilitate the latter.

In recent times of crisis due to a viral pandemic and a corrosion of globalisation, strong calls for cooperation between Europe and China become, in my view, even more precious and meaningful.

At an important EU-China Leaders’ meeting[1] on 14 September, top leadership on both sides exchanged concerns in an online forum. Regional leaders discussed their commitment to jointly tackle global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and other socio-economic issues. An open and fruitful discussion on the future of EU-China R&I cooperation was held soon after at the European Research and Innovation Days[2].

“We want more cooperation with China,” stated Jean-Eric Paquet, the Director-General of the EC’s DG R&I. Such cooperation, should be based on a level-playing field, with reciprocity and transparency. This can contribute to the sustainable development of both regions and the world.

This is a great vision, and I am excited about the next big opportunities and what the new EU-China joint roadmap will bring.

Martel expertise on EU-China R&I cooperation

My experience of EU-China R&I cooperation, collaborating with Chinese partners, is that – intriguing and promising as it may seem – it can still be challenging.

Martel has engaged in international cooperation projects in various fields of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), funded by the EC[3] over the last decade. China is a regular participant, being the target country of collaboration in three projects (see more at ECIAO, EXCITING and 5G-DRIVE).

Martel coordinated two of these projects, and is leading the EU-China relations in the third. We observe some ‘patterns’ of how our colleagues from East Asia work. Identifying these patterns helps us to plan accordingly, so we can work better together.

Cross-cultural understanding makes for better working relationships

A long-lasting relationship is never a piece of cake, let alone an intercultural one that concerns organisations which each have their own particularities. It is important to be prepared for such differences, because if you underestimate the impact they might have on your project, the consequences hit you harder.

The impact of cultural differences is often not recognised in R&I projects, is omitted from the project plan, or is not discussed prior to project implementation. All of us have a preliminary understanding of cultural stereotypes and clichés. We each enter the project with these highly personal, deep or superficial understandings and expectations. There may be an awareness that we are ‘not on the same page’ to start with.

Chinese culture and working norms can be significantly different from how things operate in Europe. Sometimes such a gap is ‘too big to ignore’. Teams on both sides have to solve problems and deal with ‘surprises’. For example: how far ahead should European partners plan an event in Europe, to allow Chinese colleagues to get internal approval to travel? To what extent are Chinese colleagues at ease communicating in English, particularly in writing? Are Chinese documents available in English? How flexible are both sides facing changes of plans? Can European partners cope with short notices? What are the priorities and expectations on both sides with regards to the final outcome of the project? All these elements should be taken into account while planning the project.

Both sides achieve goals better when collaboration focuses on specific, technical topics

In one project managed by Martel, the European and Chinese teams collaborate on exactly the same work plan, while the other has different project plans and partners only collaborate on certain tasks.

Interestingly, the project with the shared work plan required more coordination on both sides to achieve the goals than the one with different work plans. The underlying reason is complex, concerning team members, priorities, project set-up and time restrictions, among other factors. The more concrete the technical topics, down to the numbers of experiments, trials and papers, the better the result is. Collaborating with Chinese partners is highly rewarding, but an experienced team is needed to make it work.


Martel coordinates projects with European partners and beyond – find out how you can work with us.


Some of the key features working with Chinese partners:

  1. They are extremely efficient, and seem to be able to make a lot happen, if you share the same priority. The ‘China-speed’ is impressive – however, if what you request is vague and complicated, you might suffer from a lack of response.
  2. Chinese partners tend to not take the initiative and are very careful answering non-technical issues.

All in all, communication is key. We can only get better at cooperating with each other by knowing each other better, and keeping the door open for dialogue.