12 Jan 2012

The challenges of working in China

As China opens up to the international market, a stint in its burgeoning economy will boost your career. But, asks Penelope Rance, can you overcome the challenges that await the Western expat in the Middle Kingdom?

Tipped to become the second largest economy in the world, and one of the few not teetering on the brink of collapse thanks to its particular brand of open-market Marxism, China is so very now. The benefits of a spell working in the Far East are numerous – international exposure, experience of its fast-paced business culture and the chance to sample some unusual foodstuffs.

But it’s not all hen hao (good). Once China cried out for Western expertise, now it favours returnees – foreign-educated nationals. They understand a culture that can be opaque to outsiders. And your lack of understanding could be a barrier to more than just employment. Many who return early from the land of the dragon do so because of culture shock. If using squat toilets, eating live prawns and being unblinkingly stared at on  public transport sounds too uncomfortable, it may be best to consider Croydon instead.

 But if you decide you can hack it, gaining experience in China, where young executives can expect early promotion and a high level of responsibility, can greatly enhance a CV. With competition from returnees increasingly tough, the easiest route is to take a position with a Western firm with an office in China, or transfer within your current organisation.

That said, the speed of economic growth is also expanding the need foraccountants with international experience, while foreign invested
enterprises (FIEs) continue to locate there. Recruitment consultant Hudson reckons FIEs employ 85% of expats. Jobs with local Chinese firms are scarcer, but as one of Asia’s most candidate-short countries, China has the continent’s highest salary inflation and staff turnover. Hudson says banking creates the majority of expat demand, with accounting and finance second.

Unless you bring tangible value to the firm, it's hard to justify hiring a foreigner
Joyce Chao, ICAEW China

Finance directors, commercial directors and financial controllers are all needed. Although preference goes to bilingual native candidates with experience in multinational companies, certain industries need the skillsets found among expats, including the ACA. “China is ambitiously globalising its accountancy profession, so many firms are open to international talent, both the Big Four and smaller firms,” says Joyce Chao, chief representative of ICAEW in China, who has worked there for eight years.

In order to maximise your chances, advises Chao, you should learn Chinese, gain a basic understanding of the business infrastructure and become an expert in a specific area. “You are competing for jobs with local professionals. Unless you bring tangible value to the firm, it’s hard to justify hiring a foreigner.”

Build your network

If you haven’t got a job offer, it is worth spending time in China, meeting contacts and researching companies. It’s all about who you know, and with the Chinese culture of filial piety filtering into the business world, an experienced mentor could open doors. “Getting on with your local colleagues and clients takes time,” says Susan Yang, senior manager in PricewaterhouseCoopers' assurance group. Based in Shanghai, she spent two years with PwC UK, so is well placed to compare working conditions.

“Chinese people tend to spend more time establishing a trust relationship before doing business,” she adds. “Having a local guide is of paramount importance. The ICAEW office in Beijing organises various activities for members and students. Through this channel, you may meet experienced expatriates in senior positions.” Be prepared for a different attitude towards accountants if you are not working for an international firm.

“For an accountant in China the job prospects are different from the UK,” says Eric Zhu, audit manager for KPMG. A Chinese national, he spent three years in the company’s London office. “In China, accountants perform purely financial roles, and it is very rare for an accounting-based CFO to become CEO or chairman. “One of the biggest challenges is that some of your clients have little idea regarding the difference between auditor and accountant, and may expect you to perform management tasks,” says Zhu.

 Being an expatriate will limit the work you can do. “In order to sign official reports you must have the CPA qualification from the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants,” says Chao. “Very few expatriates can pass the all-Chinese written exams, so you must have skills that add value to the firm besides audit.” “There is a need for foreign-qualified chartered accountants to bring their understanding of international dimensions not only for foreign invested enterprises, but also domestic corporations seeking to do business in the rest of the world,” adds Mark Wilson, partner in RSM China, who has worked in China for nine years.

“International cooperation between ICAEW and CICPA has raised the profile of the UK profession, while niche qualifications such as Certified Internal Auditor are gaining recognition as domestic corporate governance regulations become more international.”

Prioritise the experience

Go to China with the mindset that you are doing it for the experience, not the money. “Expatriates should not have the same salary expectations as in their home country,” warns Chao. “However, the profession is advancing quickly and becoming competitive in its salary
schemes. What is more valuable than the salary is the experience of working in the most dynamic economy in the world right now.” There is cause for optimism, though.

“Salaries vary between regions, sectors and industries,” says Yang, “but salaries for experienced accountants have kept rising during the last few years due to huge demand from the capital market and foreign

Preparing for the change in culture may prevent you from becoming one of the 70 per cent of expats to make an early exit. “The best thing about living in China is 5,000 years of Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine,” says Zhu, but the full force of this can be overwhelming to the
average Westerner. If you’re obsessed by cleanliness, customer service and making sure things go to plan,

China 350

China may not be for you. Business is done differently, too. “Things change quicker than you have scheduled, such as regulatory change, clients’ urgent requests or getting new clients,” says Yang. “When I worked in the UK, I scheduled client meetings a month in advance because a request for a meeting within a week would be regarded as unprofessional. Now, if I could plan things one week ahead, I would be
happy. The greatest culture shock for Westerners may be how we value business over personal life. For example, a business trip is a reasonable excuse for not attending a close friend’s wedding.”

There is also a difference in behaviour. “People in China tend to be more quiet and less willing to speak out in meetings. For the Chinese, actions speak louder than words,” says Zhu.

Value your time

“Whether dealing with Europe in the late afternoon or the US throughout the night, the international working day is generally much longer than in the UK,” adds Wilson. “And you need to travel for regular work. In the UK, it was normal to travel up to three hours by train. In China, the same time limits apply, but I’ll be flying.

“Leisure time is limited. When I do take time off, the first priority is to spend time with my children who are growing up in an interesting bilingual environment.” His children will have an advantage over many expats.

For a career in China, learning the language is vital.

Even if you’re only there for a short time, knowledge of standard Chinese or putonghua (based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin) will help you get a job. “China is becoming an internationalised workplace and English fluency among young professionals is rising,” says Chao.

“However, knowledge of the language is essential and an understanding of the Chinese culture is equally important. If you are not able to follow the detail in Mandarin, ask the same question in a number of ways to validate points that may be lost in translation,” says Wilson. “Generally inbound work is more forgiving of a deficiency in the local language.”

Everyone who has lived and worked in China agrees that the experience will be challenging. “It is hard to do business without being able to read Chinese,” says Wilson. “Bureaucracy is also rife and administrative procedures can take an inordinate amount of time. Patience may be a virtue, but if you want the interest of the challenges, you will need an abundance of it.”

The biggest challenge is the work-life balance, says Yang. “But once an expatriate can cope with the culture, they will enjoy living and working in China.”

“The most important thing is not comparing home and China,” adds Chao, “and to think like the Chinese. China is not for everyone, but if you
want to partake in its dynamic modern history, then start learning Mandarin and book a ticket.”

Key websites include:PwC China , British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ICAEW China, Hudson Recruitment, KPMG China

Penelope Rance