Despite the trend towards greater localisation of staff in China, there is still a strong demand among multinational corporations for foreign managers experienced in doing business there. For example, every China outlet of the French retailer Carrefour is managed by a foreigner.
A training initiative now in its second year is starting to make a small contribution to expanding the supply of China-savvy foreign managers and promoting co-operation between Chinese and EU citizens. The EU-China junior managers training programme aims to develop the Chinese language skills of young Europeans and expose them to various aspects of Chinese society and business culture. It has received a generally favourable response from the initial batch of 35 participants, who are a mix of Sinologists and young professionals from Europe.
"I was really very happy with every aspect of the course. It was a good pro-gramme," says Mr. Patrick Herbots from Belgium, who is now working in Beijing for the French law firm Gide Loyette Nouel. Herbots underwent a 12-month language course in Beijing followed by a three-month internship at the law firm where he is currently employed on a one-year contract.
A similar scheme was established some years ago in Japan, with the primary aim of balancing trade between Japan and the EU. The China scheme, by contrast, aims to develop co-operation. Both initiatives were championed by Mr .Endymion Wilkinson, a former EU ambassador to Japan and now EU ambassador to China. This is an EU-funded programme involving ?9.4m (US$ l 0.5m) over five years to 2003. The Chinese side arranges visas and internal travel.
The contractual partner in China is Moftec, while the implementing partner is the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. They were initially unsure about backing a programme that only seemed to be concerned with helping European professionals. It took four years to conclude negotiations before the scheme was launched in 1999. The main sticking point was the Chinese side's difficulty in appreciating how the scheme might help Chinese companies. The organisers argued that the participants would bring a knowledge of Europe to China and expertise in international business practice. "It took a long time to get the Chinese in tune with the idea," says Ms. Gerlinde Brixius from the programme's Beijing office.
Opposition waned as appreciation grew in China that foreign investment was a key component in stimulating economic growth and stemming rising levels of unemployment. Chinese companies looking to compete in world markets also recognised that they could only benefit from greater contact with Western managers. Several groups, including the white goods manufacturer Haier- whose chairman is on the steering committee, have volunteered to take on participants for short internships.
So far, the scheme has failed to gain a high profile among the European business community. It has proved easier to target and attract graduates of Chinese than middle managers. Brixius admits that companies have been slow in coming forward. One of the reasons is the difficulty for both companies and individuals to appreciate and quantify the value of this scheme, compared with an MBA, for example.
Among the first participants were the multinationals Shell, Renault and Michelin, along with small to medium-sized trading groups from southern Europe.
The age group was initially set at 25-37-year-olds, although this restriction is no longer applied rigidly. All candidates must demonstrate a strong affinity for China and be prepared to spend at least a year there. Business people should be in employment with experience, in working in more than one EU country.
Participants are given a monthly allowance of US$555 while being housed in university campus, increasing to US$1,110 during the internship when they would typically stay in a hotel.
Twelve months intensive language training is provided by Beijing Foreign Studies University for those business people with little or no knowledge of Chinese. The Sinologists receive back-up language training in financial and business terms.
China business seminars are arranged on various topics including marketing, trade regulations, human resources and legal issues. Meetings with chambers of commerce are also organised to encourage networking.
This is one of the most popular aspects of the scheme. "The business seminars attracted lots of good people from the government and business community," says Mr. Hannes Valtonen, who now works for Jaguar Cars in the UK. "The programme really does offer an excellent means to develop business and career opportunities in China."
Mr. Andreas Griebel, an Austrian now running a car sales website in Beijing, was a philosophy of science student at Leeds University in the UK when he applied to the scheme. He was attracted to the business opportunities in China, having met many Asians during his stay in Leeds. "I came with no contacts in China," he explains. "All the people I met at the parties and seminars were of a really high level."
One of the contacts he encountered runs a trading/consultancy firm, where he spent a three-month internship and later was offered a full-time position at its newly-created web-site subsidiary, SinOwest.net.
The organisers like participants to take two short internships, one with a joint venture and one with a Chinese company. However, not all these work out. For example, Valtonen and his wife decided not to join up with a Chinese firm in remote Shanxi province.
Often the chosen company has an existing relationship with the employer, commonly as a supplier or client. Consultancies and internet firms are also popular.
Before the scheme started, Chinese companies viewed a foreigner working with locals as a troublesome prospect – for example, what food would they eat and how would they get on with their new colleagues? However, Brixius says these fears were soon dispelled as the European interns were happy to muck in and work alongside everyone else. Now, the Beijing office receives many calls from Chinese companies wanting to take part in the scheme to help them develop their international business. These include Internet firms and groups with overseas expansion programmes.
Mr. Uwe Wissenbach, a German national now working for the European Commission in Beijing, wanted to experience life outside the capital. He spent six weeks at a foreign investment branch of the Shenzhen government and four weeks at Haier in Qingdao. "The people in Shenzhen really took charge of me in a friendly way. They took me to lunch every day," he says.
Some of the intake complained of shortcomings in the quality of language training. As an academic, Griebel says it fell below his expectations. "I was expecting something different. There were eight to ten of us in a classroom, just listening to the teacher. It was not a high-level course [as we were led to believe] and the teaching methods were old-fashioned." Wissenbach thinks the teachers may have been unprepared for their inquisitive and participatory European students, being used to teaching more passive Japanese and Koreans.
Having studied in China before and being aware of the academic constraints and the general difficulties of working there, Valtonen says the language training was good and well resourced. Even so, it is being modified this year to be more interactive and focused on the business world.
By 2003, some 200 people should have taken part in the scheme, and it is hoped that, by then, a good proportion will be generating business with China. If successful, the scheme may also be applied in reverse – offering the chance for young Chinese professionals to work and study in Europe.