Working As An Expat in a Chinese Chemical Company

Dr. Kai Pflug, Management Consulting – Chemicals, Shanghai, and Dr. Stephen Pask,
SteDaPa Consulting, Düsseldorf
Working in China as a Western expat requires some adaptation to local conditions even
when the employer is a multinational company. Obviously the challenge is much bigger
for an expat working for a Chinese company and especially for a state-owned enterprise
(SOE). This paper is based on some of the experiences that Western chemists have
made in such a situation – quite likely many of these experiences are shared by expats
employed by Chinese companies in other industries.
On the other hand, it should be noted that the impressions of the individual chemists
interviewed for this paper showed a large variation from person to person. Important
factors influencing the China experience include the knowledge of the local language,
the location (while some expat communities, e.g., in Beijing and Shanghai allow leading
a fairly Western lifestyle, this is impossible in some smaller, more provincial cities
particularly in Western China) and the type of position held (technical consulting
positions may be less critical than line management positions). Preparing this paper, the
authors were thus occasionally reminded of the Chinese proverb concerning the “blind
man touching an elephant”.
What is the motivation for both sides to work together? On the Chinese side, there
is a strong desire to gain technical and management expertise – these concepts are
promoted by the central government. In addition, companies expect to win prestige by
hiring Western employees. In small Chinese companies, it is not unheard of to hire some
Western faces for a visit by investors just in order to simulate a higher level of
competence and expertise. On the side of the Western chemists, the main motivation is
the work and life experience in China. The package is generally described as adequate
but not overly generous. Work contracts often are the result of personal contacts, in
other cases headhunters are involved.
Daily life in China obviously is different from that in a Western country; however, this is
a more general topic which is not the focus of this short article.
Dealing with Chinese employees is not always straightforward. Despite many Chinese
having some knowledge of English, in reality these are often quite limited, particularly
among technically oriented male Chinese. Often the Chinese themselves are not very
aware of these limitations as their limited knowledge may already be the best existing
within the company. As a consequence, even simple communication is not always
straightforward and can be a big obstacle in developing mutual trust. An additional factor
is the different understanding of each other’s roles. Chinese employees tend to accept
the statements and actions of their superiors without question – thus there is a lack of
critical feedback. For example, if an expat manager puts an excessive workload on one
of his employees, the employee is more likely to work until after midnight than to address
the problem. On the other hand, a typical Chinese employee shows only limited initiative.
It is unlikely the employee will communicate the fact that he has spare working capacity
or is aware of possible improvements.
The professional knowledge of Chinese employees frequently is not on the same level
as that of his Western counterparts in a comparable position. In China, the key selection
step in the educational system is before entering the university and thus before the
specialization on a specific subject such as chemistry. The university studies following
high school are more a relaxation period after the extreme efforts of securing a place at
a good university. In addition, learning by rote rather than the creative handling of
complex issues remains central even at the university level.
For Western employees the limited separation between work and private life is another
issue. Even on weekends or late in the evening employees are expected to take workrelated
calls. And for Chinese employees it is not unusual to invite their superior to a
game of pool on a Sunday morning.
The hierarchy for Western expats in Chinese companies tends to be separate from and
parallel to the Chinese hierarchy. As a result, the expats have limited influence even on
their direct employees as the Chinese are more likely to listen to their highest Chinese
boss. On the other hand, Western expats often have access to Chinese top
management outside the formal hierarchical structures and this can lead to mistrust
among the Chinese they work with.
Generally, Western expats still have consulting roles in Chinese chemical companies
and are thus, generally, are not part of the dominating line organization (matrix
organizations seem to be rare in Chinese chemical companies). Support from the levels
above and below is often half-hearted. This limits the expat´s influence and can lead to
frustration – “the real work is done by the locals anyway”.
The work style in Western companies involves substantial delegation of power and
responsibility to lower- and mid-level managers. They have targets to be met but are
relatively free in how to achieve these. The experience of Western expats in Chinese
chemical companies is very different. In each commercial unit there usually is only one
decision maker. In addition, in this top down structure, micro management is prevalent.
In the words of one Western chemical manager: On his own, he “could not even order a
pencil”. Closely related is that the system does not encourage lower-level employees to
assume responsibility but rather punishes them should they do so.
Planning periods in Chinese companies are very short, and are changed very frequently.
This is valid both for small issues such as the timing of the next meeting as well as for
more important issues such as the complete business strategy of the company (if one
exists – many Chinese chemical companies so far have not seen much need for a
strategy as an opportunistic pursuit of short-term opportunities was quite successful in a
seemingly ever-growing market). Furthermore, at state-owned chemical companies the
targets pursued in reality are not the same as the officially stated ones, and are often not
based on simple commercial issues. Instead of optimizing profitability, the focus is on
securing jobs and increasing the production capacity (and thus the importance of the
own company). This is reflected in the people at the top of SOE – most of them are
politicians rather than business managers. In such an environment, the room for
improvement targeted by Western chemical managers is restricted, even though some
of the Chinese chemical companies are in very difficult economic conditions and thus in
dire need of improvement.
Not surprisingly, theu conclsion of Western expats´ experiences working in Chinese
chemical companies covers a broad range. While in one case the employment ended
after only 2 weeks as the Chinese chemical company lacked adequate structures and
thus led to extreme frustration on the side of the expat, others state that they would have
liked to work longer than the three years stipulated in their contracts. The general
impression is one of limited influence of Western expats, primarily due to communication
issues, intransparent or nonexistent structures and unspoken barriers towards stringent
management measures. It is indeed possible to provide some technical knowledge. But
the transfer of Western structures centering on efficiency, clear responsibilities and
delegation is extremely difficult. The key reasons seem to be the unclear role of expats
in the hierarchy and the plethora of unspoken motivations and targets dominating
Chinese companies.
One reason for the predominantly negative experiences is that in many cases, the
rationale for hiring expats is not clear – even though they can make substantial
contributions. Are they to provide technical knowledge? Or rather structures, methods
and ways of thinking? Is their role to mollify the investors, or simply to enhance the
image of their employers?
In a slightly modified form, this question is not only relevant for Chinese companies but
also for Western chemical companies sending chemists and chemical managers to
China. Both need to be very clear about the rationale for employing expats. Interestingly,
some of our interview partners pointed out that in those Western companies which have
already localized many positions in China, the structures and working styles more and
more resemble those in Chinese companies. Western companies which value
delegation and rewards for taking responsibility in the lower ranks thus have to examine
very carefully whether such a system can be executed relying solely on local Chinese
staff. One approach which can improve the chance of achieving the goal for international
companies is to have a Chinese delegate in the home country for at least six months
before installing the native Chinese employee in his position in China.