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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Becoming a Foreigner

Try China -- but be prepared for challenges

By Cesar Bacani


TWO MEN easily stand out among the 60 full-time MBA students at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. Suzuki Kazuhisa is Japanese while Derrick James Brown comes from Canada. The 29-year-old Suzuki, who is on leave from Toshiba Corp. in Tokyo, hopes to use his classroom contacts to become a mainland management consultant. “Personal relationships is very important in China,” he says. For his part, Brown, 31, is willing to work up to 10 years in the country to further his business career. “If you’re thinking of competing, being different is your edge,” says the former Canadian government agricultural adviser.

Every little thing helps. While China needs thousands of new managers every year, it wants them to be mainland Chinese. So Beijing strictly controls the entry of foreign nationals. Even so, some 30,000 registered expatriates -- the number can be much higher if workers on tourist and student visas are taken into account -- fill management and technical posts in the capital alone. The pay package is generous. Salaries can be 30% higher than what the expat gets at home. The perks include housing, education for the children, home travel and company-paid income tax -- worth as much as $400,000 a year.

Beyond the money, a stint in China can enhance career prospects. In Hong Kong, says headhunter Antonio Cheung, director of Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group in the territory, “what companies are looking for are people with solid China experience, whether you’ve been based in China for one or two years or spent 30% to 40% of your time there.” The trend is evident not only in British-run Hong Kong, which reverts to Chinese sovereignty in July. Companies in Singapore, Taiwan and other places in Asia are also increasingly looking for Chinese experience as trade and investment with the mainland grows and China becomes an economic power.

So what does it take for you to become a foreigner in China? Knowledge of Mandarin, obviously. Reading and writing Chinese script is an added advantage. Being in the right field is a big plus. “Service sectors such as banking and retailing are opening up, and there are plenty of opportunities for expats,” says Agneta Staaf, manager of executive relocation firm Crown Worldwide Group in Beijing. “There are 71 [foreign] companies in the insurance industry waiting to set up an office here.”

If your company is one of the few that still see China as a hardship post, volunteering for a mainland assignment may get you in. Studying in China, as Suzuki and Brown are doing, is another route. But the English-language China Europe International Business School, one of the few institutions with an accredited MBA program, is extremely competitive: some 4,000 people applied for 120 places for 1997. Suzuki and Brown are currently the only non-Chinese students. One alternative: brush up on your Mandarin in one of China’s universities -- the Beijing Foreign Language Institute is the best known. Take advantage of your stay to travel around the country and understand Chinese ways.

As a foreigner in China, you may receive offers from foreign companies and joint ventures. (They need qualified people that badly.) Be aware that pay packages for in-country recruits are lower than for those brought in from outside -- though they are still better than the annual $45,000 for senior local hires. On the other hand, you will be gaining valuable experience. Later, you can send your resumé to multinationals and big companies in Hong Kong and elsewhere and, with luck, get on the really rich expat gravy train.

So you’re ready to climb aboard. Make sure the company pays for housing, your children’s schooling and other extras. “Education [for foreigners] is very expensive in Beijing and many schools keep tabs on each other’s charges,” says Staaf. “Housing is also a main concern.” A large apartment for a couple can cost up to $150,000 a year. Taxes are also high. “Many companies pay them,” adds Staaf. “Officially, expats are supposed to pay taxes on their children’s education, car, housing and other perks.” Foreign accounting firms say employers tend to ignore these levies, but the government has lately been tightening the screws on assessment and payment.

You would have thoroughly discussed the move with your family and perhaps even attended orientation classes arranged by your company. No matter how prepared you think you are, however, remember that China is still a foreign country. “There are a lot of clashes that result from difficulty of communications between locals and foreigners,” says an expat office manager. Still, China is more welcoming than, say, Japan, where foreigners have a tough time finding acceptance. But don’t count on staying in China for a long time. Think of it this way: more than 1 billion Chinese want your job.

-- Reported from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong


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