“China is a country, not a career.” This is advice my students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center received during a career-focused trip to Beijing.
Over the past 35 years, China’s economic growth has been impressive. Between 1979 and 2014, China’s GDP grew roughly 10% annually, moving China from the world’s 9th largest economy in 1979 to its 2nd largest in 2014.[i]
This development created many exciting job opportunities for young foreigners who, while perhaps light on professional experience, were able to speak (at least some) Chinese and were willing to live in China.
Today, things are different. China’s economy is still growing, but foreigners face a more challenging job market. Competition from local hires educated abroad or through Sino-Western educational partnerships bring many competitive advantages at lower costs and lower risks.
Stricter visa policies also hinder foreigners’ ability to legally work in China. While recently announced changes to the visa policy may ease the restrictions on foreigners working in China[ii], local competition remains formidable. These and other challenges (such as concerns over air pollution and food safety) have led many Chinese speaking foreigners to explore the “China job market” in their home country. The results are mixed.
Talk to foreigners who have returned home from China and you might be surprised to learn that Chinese language abilities had little impact on their employment. Michael Gubieski, an Engagement Manager with McKinsey in Melbourne, Australia, mentioned that while he learned of his current opportunity through a contact he met in Beijing, his language abilities or experience in China had little to no impact on his hiring and that his work for McKinsey has no direct relation to China.
In the US, returnees have encountered a similar situation. “Work experience is more important than language ability” said Jordan Chambers, who studied Chinese for five years, living in Beijing and Shenzhen, and is now a Channel Manager with Iron Mountain Data Management in Atlanta, Ga.
“Nobody’s going to hire you to be Marco Polo, so the real question becomes do you have the requisite experience and are you personable,” he added.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Abby King, an Inventory Specialist with Best Buy, recommended foreigners returning home from China, “try not to put too much focus on your Chinese language skills but more about your China experience.” The reality expressed by many China hands returning home is that they encounter a job market that isn’t quite sure how to use them.
China Jobs at Home
Nevertheless, there is room for significant optimism. First, Chinese companies are growing. In 1996 just two of Fortune’s Global 500 companies were Chinese[iii]. Twenty years later that number has risen to 103.[iv] As Chinese companies have grown so too has their appetite to investment abroad.
Chinese FDI in Australia increased over 3,000%, growing from $320 million USD in 2005 to $12.2 billion in 2015. In the US, Chinese FDI went from less than $20 million USD in 2005 to over $15 billion in 2015[v]. With this new investment have come new employment opportunities.
The Rhodium Group and the National Committee on US-China Relations noted recently that the number of jobs provided by Chinese companies in the US went from fewer than 20,000 to over 90,000 between 2010 and 2015.[vi] Individuals who are knowledgeable of a domestic market, have the legal right to work in country, and are experienced in interacting with Chinese colleagues are well-positioned to capitalize on these new opportunities.
There is also a need for China-savvy staff at domestic and multinational organizations. Government agencies increasingly need China expertise, not just in diplomatic affairs but in areas such as defense, agriculture, and energy. Developments in China affect think tanks focused on issues ranging from the environment to security, and they need knowledgeable and capable contributors.
Institutions of higher education are attracting record numbers of Chinese students but face significant challenges in assisting them in their transition to a new learning environment. Real estate companies are consistently engaging Chinese investors eager to acquire property abroad.
With these developments come the need for staff that can provide China expertise, combining language capabilities, cultural understanding, and China-specific knowledge of an industry. Foreigners keen on applying their knowledge of China in their home countries, particularly countries with strong economic and political ties to China, will likely find that as China’s influence in the world becomes greater so too are the job opportunities for China hands at home.
[i] Morrison, Wayne M. “China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States.” Congressional Executive Commission on China https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33534.pdf
[ii] Tatlow, Didi Kristen, “Hoping to Work in China? If You’re a Class C Foreigner It May Be Tough.” New York Times, September 21, 2016
[v] Tang, Edmund, “Australia Remains Second Most Favoured Country for China’s Outbound Investors.” April 19, 2016, http://www.austrade.gov.au/news/economic-analysis/australia-remains-the-second-most-favoured-country-for-china-s-outbound-investors
[vi] Hanemann, Thilo and Gao, Cassie, “Chinese FDI in the US: 2015 Recap.” January 19, 2016 from the Rhodium Group’s Website http://rhg.com/notes/chinese-fdi-in-the-us-2015-recap
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