China is showing once again that it has a remarkable ability to take advantage of changes in the global economy, this time in the white collar labor market. More and more Chinese managers are leaving western multinational corporations to seek new opportunities with Chinese companies, or to start their own enterprise. The HR offices of foreign companies, headhunters, and market analysts can all attest to this growing trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the return home of Chinese business students who have earned their MBA abroad. There is no real data to support this conclusion, but the pattern is there: Chinese managers want to work with Chinese companies, and recruiting them into western companies is getting harder every day.
The shift is inexorably tied to the development and success of the Chinese economy. During the early years of Chinese economic reform it was a sign of distinction to be employed by a multinational company (MNC), a shortcut to prestige and prosperity. The few English-speaking Chinese were an essential bridge between MNCs and an unknown market, and a small increase in pay was all it took to lure a key manager away from his Chinese job. Once acquired, however, the role of the new Chinese managers in the company’s organization was marginal. The prevailing business model at the time had investors in China sending their own people to run the company and supervise production and administration. China provided the labor force, a cheap, disciplined, immense resource to be sure, but even the most competent Chinese could only hope to gain a mid-level position, confined by presumptuous western management. This situation peaked at the turn of the millennium, when China entered the WTO and became known as “the factory of the world.”
China’s meteoric rise and the economic downturn of the industrialized economies have led to a global paradigm shift. Global growth, investment, and profit are now centered in Asia, and though they may not be as well-known as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, China now has its fair share of young billionaires. Unlike their fathers, the new Chinese entrepreneurs are allowed to take risks, to have a vision for growth, to seek profit. Managers at Chinese corporations are also gaining traction, and reaping the rewards. Offered competitive salaries and fringe benefits, new managers now have the promise of a prestigious career, and not just by Chinese standards. Even the public sector is fostering ambitious career opportunities, as State Owned Enterprises, once a shelter for a boring lifetime job, become more selective. As SOEs become more involved in the market and have more at stake, so increases their appetite for skilled management.
The underlying motivation for this employment phenomenon is respect for the homeland. To be employed by a Chinese company – especially in an important position – commands social respect; contribution to the collective growth is positive reinforcement for the patriotic spirit. Ambitions that were set aside for years by a strategic decision to wait for a better industrial position are finally being realized. Now that China’s place in the global economy is solid, traditional nationalism joins economic strength, and young Chinese managers are learning that a successful and fulfilling career can be found right in their own backyard.