Keeping an eye on rising dragon


IT may be called the Middle Kingdom, but there is nothing remotely moderate about China’s economic ascendancy. 

Facts and figures on the country always make for fascinating, if frightening listening. 

A presentation last month in Kuala Lumpur by Bo Le Associates Ltd to its clients was no different. Although touted as a talk on human resource trends and management opportunities in China, the real story for all intents and purposes, was China.  

As with most avid China observers, Bo Le managing director Louisa Wong-Rousseau – an executive search consultant and an old China hand – is keeping a close eye on the world's fastest growing economic juggernaut. 

The data speaks for itself. China is already the world's sixth largest economy and is set to surpass Japan as the second biggest economy by 2020. It has overtaken the US as the hottest destination for foreign direct investment. A whopping 95% of the world's top 500 companies have invested in China, Shanghai alone boasts over 400.  

Up to 80% of all foreign direct investment (FDI) in East Asia in the next two to three years (basically all the FDI that used to flow to Southeast Asia) is expected to flow to China instead. 

Nearly everything about it already seems the fastest or largest. The fastest growing car market in the world. Fastest growing advanced rail network. Largest shoe manufacturer. World's leading garment producer. Biggest consumer market. Fastest growing luxury goods market. Largest mobile phone market. Leading consumer of steel output. World's number one tourist destination by 2020. World's fastest growing jetsetters. Etcetera. Etcetera.  

And in sectors or areas where it isn’t already at the top of the heap, it shows enormous potential and the will to get there.  

Not surprisingly, China pundits are predicting the country will soon be a leader in software service outsourcing, and an emerging hub for IT and research and development. After all, China is believed to produce more college graduates with BAs, MAs and PhDs in natural science and engineering than any other country.  

And while it is renowned for its manufacturing prowess, don't be misled into thinking simple manufacturing is all it can do. China is stepping up the value-added chain and learning to produce in far more complex areas. 

An Australian businessman who has spent the past seven years in China marvels: “They're learning at such speeds that they can even manufacture products in an industry as complex as oil and gas.” 

According to Bo Le's Wong-Rousseau, 11 China companies are now in the Fortune 500, Haier (household appliances), Huawei (telecommunications), Tsingtao (beer) and Pearl River (pianos) being just some examples of growing brands.  

The successful moulding of Chinese brand names into global brands has increased the stature of Chinese as capable managers, she says, and quite a number already head multinational companies (MNCs) in China. A few even head regional offices. 

Even in the services sector, the Chinese are marching on. The march is not expected to be confined to areas such as call centres or back-room operations, but to extend soon to the financial sector given the return of Wall Street returnees, whether due to the weaker financial markets and job opportunities in the US, or the lure of better money and prospects in China's financial centre, Shanghai. 

Language also isn't proving too much of a barrier to business. Just as thousands of foreigners clamour to pick up Mandarin, the Chinese have put enormous effort into learning English. In Asia, Chinese students have climbed to the number five ranking based on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) results, despite English education being institutionalised in Chinese schools only in 1978. 

Whether it’s the sheer size of the population or because of it, the Chinese thirst for knowledge is impressive. The Chinese have swung back to viewing education and learning as key to a better life, putting behind them the sorry years of the Cultural Revolution and the persecution of intellectuals. 

A human resource manager at an MNC speaks of the Chinese executive’s attitude: “When we hold a training session in Malaysia, the staff treat it like a holiday and maybe put in 60% effort. In China, it's 110%.” 

A brand manager at another MNC agrees. According to her, Chinese executives are very pragmatic and keen to acquire knowledge, adding, “but they are only interested in you so long as they can learn something from you.” 

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