Nian Hui（ 年会） is the Mandarin word for a company’s annual party. They are big company parties that happen at the end of the Lunar Calendar, right before Chinese New Year, the largest and most important festival in Chinese culture.
This means that they normally take place in second or third week of January. Close enough to the new year that it feels relevant, yet with enough space before so that those leaving for vacation are able to attend.
The Nian Hui is basically a company show where everyone goes to a conference center, sits with their department, and watches about three to four hours of speeches and acts. The CEO, along with other figureheads, will pontificate about what great progress was made throughout the past year and all of their great plans to come. After and throughout all of this everyone is encouraged to cheer and support the company in quintessential Chinese style.
Those higher up will also dress up and participate in silly performances. This is one of the most curious aspects of the Nian Hui. For example, Jack Ma, CEO of world famous Alibaba, once dressed up as a woman for a performance. Although most executives do not go as far, participation in song and dance by higher level employees is ubiqiutious.
Those on the lower rungs follow suit by coming together and creating smaller performances. Women have a tendency to lean towards more sexual dances. Men enjoy drama productions of their favorite reality TV shows.
Why Do They Have It?
It is important to understand the Nian Hui if you want to understand Chinese culture. Like many things here, it’s all about face. The company can gain face by showing all the employees how strong they are through a number of different criteria, such as location, facilities, presentation, and quality of food.
A Nian Hui that does well in these areas will give the company a lot of face. Employees will feel that the organization is strong enough to weather a storm and will be able to provide a good future. If it does not do well in these areas, well, mutiny- or at least abandonment- could be imminent.
The longer I work in China, the more I dread going to these events. And it’s not just about being a foreigner either. Chinese and Foreign Experts alike both experience the same feeling of being dragged to a stuffy location and twiddling their thumbs for an evening. Most of the time, everyone feels like they are being indoctrinated by company propaganda.
Often at a Nian Hui, you will hear lines such as “We are the best company in the industry this year. Next year we will be even better. Who is with me? Our company is the most innovative and will out work all the others!”
The thing is, though, that employees don’t care about the long term portfolio performance of the company they work for. It just doesn’t effect them in any tangible way. The thing that is really important to them is their salary, benefits, and daily work lives. It is not so complicated. But these events often go so far into the bigger picture of the company that the worker bees are entirely left out.
If the food is poor and the words are stale, well, these events more often than not become quite a drag. It’s not that the staff doesn’t enjoy their jobs; it’s just that this type of event is very out of date in a workforce that is increasingly educated and self-aware.
Not to suggest that the Nian Hui is all bad. Seeing your bosses and coworkers get a little silly makes them more human. During the performance, the executives will comes around and toast everyone. Not because they enjoy it, but because it’s what they are supposed to do. The workers drink with them for the same reason.
The core tradition is strong, however it is becoming obvious to everyone that the format is more outdated every year.