First thing is first, English is the de facto language of business throughout the world.
You’ll frequently see the claim that China now has more English speakers than any other country in the world. This should be taken with a pretty big grain of salt. Yes, English is a compulsory subject for every student in China beginning at Grade 3 and for those from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai it’s normal to start at Grade 1. No, you should not take that to mean your Supplier will be anywhere near fluent in English. This is due in large part to the fact that the transition from Chinese to English is one of the most difficult transitions of any of the major languages. However, for the entrepreneur and their small business it’s reasonable to expect their supplier (or a colleague of theirs) will have an acceptable level of comprehension, at least for the major business ideas and terms.
So here are some points to remember when communicating:
Expect bad English, beware downright horrible
I have suppliers who have MBAs from Western Universities and still have barely acceptable English. Get used to this. However, if your Supplier’s English is downright horrible, to the point they struggle to get past ‘Hi, how are you?’, I would take this as a pretty big red flag. Your supplier is going to be expected to meet some expectations for dealing with Western companies like yours including quality, deadlines, forthrightness, etc.. If their English is near non-existent it may be indicative of their experience in dealing with Western companies (re: near non-existent).
Chinese are normally more comfortable writing than speaking
Most Chinese prefer to communicate anything approaching a complex idea through email. It gives them time to think about how to say something correctly and look a word up as needed. With that being said, most Chinese also appreciate the opportunity to talk with you in person to practice their English.
If you’re a non-native English speaker you have an advantage
Many Chinese Suppliers find it easier to communicate with non-native English speakers than native English speakers. Native speakers are likely to use more complex words and speak more quickly than non-native speakers. When a Chinese Supplier does not understand something it is also much easier to rationalize that it’s the Buyer’s incompetency in English that is to blame rather than theirs!