I have eaten occasionally at a local Chinese restaurant called China One.  For whatever reason, the owners have not repaired the bulbs or power connections on the first three letters.  Therefore, at night the restaurant name displays as NA ONE.  My wife will sometimes jokingly say to me, “Let’s go to Na One for dinner!”

Somehow, that inside joke came to mind as I read Christopher Beam’s article, “China Doesn’t Want You: Moving to the People’s Republic is not the opportunity it’s cracked up to be” (Bloomberg Businessweek, 6/11/12–6/17/12, pp. 83–85).  Beam assesses China’s promises versus China’s disappointments for the roving professional.  Beam sets the stage:

“China developed a reputation as a place where foreigners could launch a business or career, perhaps even faster than at home.” (p. 84)

Indeed, the past couple decades created many success stories to boost this perception.  The tremendous size, population, and economic growth of China coupled with business globalization’s irreversibility only enhanced that expectation.

Unfortunately, those success stories do not paint the full picture.  Lucrative jobs in prestigious positions are in the minority, especially if you are a transplanted American.

Consider the changes in China’s labor pool composition.  Well over a quarter million Chinese annually are now coming to America (and other countries) to obtain their education.  Upon earning their degrees, it is easy and natural for them to return to China and step into jobs.  They are doing this at over ten times the rate they did in the mid-1990s.

The language challenge is an important factor too.  Most Chinese students started learning English at age eight.  When did you pick up your Mandarin?  If a Chinese company has the choice between a national and an American for whom Mandarin is a second language, you do the math.  Additionally, the Chinese national can usually be hooked for significantly less money.

Beam highlights the daunting challenges of navigating the cultural business landscape:

“China’s famously ceremonial business culture presents another set of challenges, from knowing where to sit at a banquet to maintaining control after the 18th glass of baijiu, a liquor distilled from sorghum that goes down like lighter fluid and is a key ritual in many deals.” (p. 85)

If that isn’t bad enough, add to it the frequent ethical compromises you may encounter.  For example, Rovio Entertainment (creator of Angry Birds) had to swap in-game advertising for licensing fees involving pirated toys.

The news is not completely bad.  Beam emphasizes, “the key for any newcomer is to offer a unique skill” (p. 85).  A couple examples he shares are the design of buildings and semiconductor engineering.  But who is to say when a skill is no longer unique?

So, who wants to go to China for your next promotion or startup opportunity?  You should think twice.  But if you go, please be certain you have done your homework.  Once you land in China, you will be a long way from home.

I can only speak for myself:  China?  Na.

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About James Meadows

Currently I serve as a training team manager for Johnson Controls at a customer-care center in Kansas City. Additionally, I am a business consultant, a freelance corporate writer, an Assembly of God ordained minister, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain, and a blogger. I believe we are living in the most fascinating times of human history. To maximize the opportunities these times present, I have a passionate interest in leadership development and organizational success, both of which I view as inextricably linked.

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