Career Paths for New China Hands

Does China have a place on the young professionals resume (cv) ?

The China career track for international managers took on a completely new dimension in 2008. In the wake of the international financial crisis, China decoupled from the West’ trajectory and went its own path. Whatever ups and downs the US-China relationship may go through in the future, we know a few things for certain:

  • The Chinese economy is part of the mainstream international corporate world – not a specialty, sideline or cost-cutting measure.
  • China and the West are governed by very different rules, systems and codes of best practices – and we still haven’t found a sustainable model for reconciling the two.
  • Success or failure in China is the result of individual and corporate performance, not simply broad trends or international relations.

It was only a year ago that the NY Times was extolling young graduates to seek their fortune in China — now the paper can’t even keep its own correspondents employed in the country.  Back here in the US and Europe, the job market is dismal while China’s economy just keeps on rolling. Is it worth the time, energy and opportunity cost to pursue a posting or search for work in China? Or is it too difficult and risky?

US companies feeling abused, and Old Hands look like part of the problem.

When China was nothing more than a cheap source of extruded plastic toys and a giant sweatshop for the electronics and textile industries, Western C-suites had a pretty low bar for management standards. If you spoke Chinese and could bully or cajole your local team into getting the right number of shipping containers to the docks on time, you could earn yourself a good life in China (providing you never wanted to work anywhere else). But when China suddenly shifted to its new role as market/ supply chain hub, the demands on expats started to change as well. Suddenly “our man in China” was seen as a liability. Once a James Bondesque fixer who got the tough jobs done when no one else could, the Old Hand now looks like the Manchurian MBA — a shady snake-oil salesman who has been “over there” too long and now has questionable loyalties. Lawyers in NY and accountants in London are simply no longer satisfied hearing, “TIC – This is China, and that’s how it’s done here!”

The China Career – Magic Beans or Poison Pill?

So what do we tell our new graduates with more ambition (and debt) than experience? Is it still “Go East Young Man”? or should they take that unpaid internship filling copy machines and fetching lattes back home?

The bottom line is that a stint in China can definitely help push you up the ladder, but it’s a bigger investment than most other professional moves you can make. The traditional model of Old China Hand as pioneer, diplomat and fixer is blowing up. We have already  discussed the emergence of a new actor on the China professional landscapethe New China Hand. Now let’s look at what the career path of the China expert might look like going forward.

New path for new hands

It no longer seems out of place to quote Mao to give MBAs career advice: “all under heaven is in chaos — the situation is excellent”.  The management situation for Western firms in China is so bad right now that it is creating opportunities for a new crop of careerists. Old hands and local hires are too “Chinesey” — in times of tension, conflict and suspicion their loyalties are suspect. Western managers have learned the hard way that they can’t put their China operations on auto-pilot and hope for the best. The new China experts are going to be communicators, facilitators, and internal consultants. They will be men and women who are truly bi-cultural — whose only loyalty is to the organization. Ideologues have no place in the new multi-national, be they Communist Party, Tea Party or Occupy Wall St. True believers follow the path of the org chart and study the company marketing plan.

As China morphs from cheap manufacturing center to vital supply chain hub and key consumer market, the career paths of international managers is shifting. The China job function has become mainstream. We are all China hands now . and the NCHs will be our specialists– although not necessarily for their entire careers.

Career Paths for a New China:

The New China Hand has more options than ever, though ironically they may not all be in China. If the language skills aren’t there, you’ll be replaced by a local who has the same degree – possibly from the same school. But the good news is that while local competition is harder to deal with in the PRC, your China skills have more value back home. Not necessarily for China though. As China becomes more important globally, doing a stint in China is a way of earning your international credentials. China is replacing Europe as the proving ground for global managers. Professionals of a certain age remember once being told to learn French to prepare for an international career – now it’s Mandarin.

There are basically three general directions that China experience can take you.


The title “China Country Head” will continue to fall out of favor as the Chinese economy grows in importance, but whether they call the job Managing Director, Branch Manager or President of the China Division, the top job at the China office is going to be one of the most coveted and prestigious titles to have. For MNCs and international firms with US or Western roots, bi-cultural managers will be the only ones who can climb to the top of the organization chart.

MNC’s will be more active in Mainland China as they build marketing channels and manage far-flung logistics networks. That means more opportunities for young grads – but also more competition as local Chinese with expensive overseas degrees head home. Ironically, the more bellicose and frightening Beijing becomes, the less likely the best Chinese grads will want to return. Look for that factor to moderate China’s rhetoric – but not anytime soon.

Expats will have plenty of opportunity in China-based organizations, but language and cultural skills are required.

In Asia Regionals HQ

One of the new trends that will open up a range of new career tracks is China’s new role as the HQ of Asia. Shanghai and Beijing may not completely overtake incumbents like HK, Singapore or Tokyo as the leading business centers, but the size of the China market and its unique role as a supply chain mean that more and more regional HQs will be China-based. For those interested in making it big in international marketing or running departments at MNCs, having a few years of China on the work history will be mandatory.

In Corporate Global HQ

Back home the local boys with China experience will really shine. Suspicion, nationalism and fear can work for you – if you have the right experience and skills. C-suites are in a bind – they know that their future is tied to Asia in general and China in particular, but they feel that the present system has burned them. Top management has grudgingly accepted that on-the-ground management teams in China will be run by locals – but they still need experts at home who can monitor, explain and act as a shadow management team. It won’t be any more sinister or clandestine than the system any US branch office has with HQ today – but it will have Chinese characteristics. That’s where you come in.

The New China Hand will be the bridge between HQ and local Chinese teams. It will be your job to move information both ways — understanding the needs, concerns and ambitions of both global HQ and China HQ, and finding ways to build a consensus. That may mean working within a single corporate structure – but more and more it will mean being able to develop JVs, consortiums and key-partner relationships who can bridge the culture gap without running afoul of obstructive national regulations.

China has established itself as a major player in the 21st century economy – but we haven’t yet found a mode of operation that satisfies both sides. The new breed of China hands will find ways of reconciling China’s ambitions with Western structures. Our two systems are mutually reliant – but we have yet to establish a joint operating procedure that works. That is the challenge and opportunity of the New China Hand.

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