For Thomas Pan, going for an MBA at Beijing’s Tsinghua University wasn’t a hard decision. A native of Hong Kong with a undergraduate degree from the United States, Pan realized “firstly, that I needed to differentiate myself from the growing number of MBA graduates in the U.S., and secondly, that anyone willing to do an MBA in the U.S. is probably in a prime position to take a little risk in life.”
Indeed, risk. But for many, getting an MBA in the People’s Republic of China or Hong Kong may well be worth it. China has the world’s fastest-growing economy, and boasts the third-largest GDP. More than just a blip on the economic radar, China is poised to become the world’s number-one economic powerhouse, and many students like Pan are looking to get in on the ground floor by doing MBAs there.
Lydia Price, academic director of MBA programs at CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai, notes the dynamic nature of China’s growing economy and its increasing opportunities for international students. While the manufacturing industry is already quite strong, Price says that “in certain sectors, like financial services or retailing, the supply of experienced management talent is thin.”
“But as the sectors boom in coming years, the demand for experienced talent will certainly outstrip the supply,” she adds. “This creates opportunities for international students, especially if they speak Chinese.”
While Price agrees that CEIBS students generally want to stay in China, she says that even if they don’t, the global economic tendrils of the growing giant can be hard to avoid.
“Even if students do not want to work in China post-MBA, most of them find that their industry is closely connected to China in one way or another,” says Price.
Before deciding on Tsinghua University, Thomas Pan also considered CEIBS and Peking University, which both have English-language MBA programs. He also could have selected from a handful of internationally reputed schools in China that have English MBA programs, including Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU,) Fudan University, the East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST,) and the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. In Hong Kong, there’s the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST,) Hong Kong University, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), among others.
For students further along in their careers, Rutgers offers a flexible executive MBA in China, with campuses in Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore.
Should students learn Mandarin if they want to do business in China?
“Yes, absolutely,” says Lydia Price. “At CEIBS every student must master the basics of Mandarin as a requirement for graduation. “
She says that’s because “the more closely a student hopes to work with Chinese staff or customers, the greater their Mandarin capabilities must be.”
Kenneth Mok, the administrative director for the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK,) agrees, with a stipulation about Hong Kong: “When we do interviews with the candidates, we always ask them, where would you like to be after you graduate? If they want to stay in Hong Kong or in mainland China, I would ask them the very hard question: Do you know Mandarin?”
Mok says that’s it’s fairly easy to get around in Hong Kong on English alone, but knowing Mandarin will help “quite a lot” in terms of business relationships.
Besides language issues, other aspects of China’s business culture can be different from other places. “Cross-cultural communication and interpersonal relations can be quite challenging here,” CEIBS’ Price says.
She notes that the notions of guanxi (relationships) and face (respect) are important, and that it usually takes some time for students to become accustomed to them. Additionally, she says, “non-verbal communication, or what is left out of the conversation, is equally important as what is communicated verbally. But it takes time and effort to learn to read these signals.”
Kelly Bratner, the executive director for Rutgers’ EMBA China program, agrees that the subtleties of Chinese business interactions can take some getting used to.
“When you're in the West,” she says, “when you sign a contract, you have a deal. But here, that's not always the case. It's almost like it's the first step in a relationship. So it's just a real change in terms of how you negotiate. “
Thomas Pan at Tsinghua has noticed some other cultural quirks that might surprise international students. “If you’re out speaking anything other than Chinese, people do stop and stare.”
"It’s intense curiosity more than trying to make you feel awkward or anything. Try some broken Chinese on them and they’ll readily chat with you.”
CUHK’s Mok says that it can be a bit easier for international students to adapt to Hong Kong, due to the fact that it was a British colony for so long. “We have a pretty western lifestyle here,” he says, “so I think most international students will not find it difficult to live here.”
He also suggests that living and studying in Hong Kong can be a great way to break into China’s economy, as almost a kind of acclimation.
“Hong Kong acts as a gateway to China,” he says. “Sometimes students ask, why not just go into China? Wouldn't that be easier? Because Hong Kong has advantages: openness and transparency.”
Mok says that the majority of CUHK’s MBA grads end up staying in Hong Kong or mainland China. CUHK assists students with business networking during the program, and students can generally get a one-year work visa after graduation to test the waters.
Thomas Pan is due to graduate from Tsinghua in 2011, but is already excited about the prospects of staying and working in the country. With regards to the culture, he says it’s hard to prepare for many western students, but it’s definitely worth it:
“You can't figure out what China is going to be like until you actually spend a lot of time here,” says Pan. “If you don't have the preparation, you're kind of diving into the deep end.”
“But that's a good thing these days.”
Photo: Shanghai by jmgris / Flickr (cropped)