In 2011, a large Hungarian chemical factory was acquired by a Chinese competitor. The resulting encounter between Chinese managers and Hungarian staff — which took place in the context of a harsh retrenchment that has curtailed the powers of organized labour in Hungary — highlights the inadequacy of dichotomies such as North/South, East/West and socialist/capitalist. As with other corporate acquisitions in Europe, Chinese managers expected to ‘learn’ from ‘advanced Western management practices’; instead, they found what they interpreted as a backward, ‘socialist’ work culture in need of modernization. For their part, Hungarian staff feared the imposition of a culturally inappropriate ‘Asian labour discipline’, but have come to see at least some of the changes as part of a necessary modernization. ‘Asian’, ‘European’, ‘Western’ and ‘socialist’ are floating signifiers used by both Chinese and Hungarian staff at the factory in various, often contradictory ways to justify management choices, staff resistance or individual preferences. As a result of their analysis, the authors suggest that discussions about the impact of Chinese investment on labour practices should recognize a wider range of contexts, including the presence of precarious socioeconomic environments within the so-called ‘advanced economies’.