Home > iDEAL Focus > Features > New China hands may see country as a career step
New China hands may see country as a career step
By Doug Young

TWO recent encounters with high-level Westerners from different backgrounds has made me realize just how much China has changed as a career choice for foreigners in the last two decades.

Some may say this transformation of China to a routine work location for foreign executives from its former status as an exotic and often difficult destination is a good thing, reflecting a rapid economic advance that has improved the lives of the country's 1.3 billion people.

I mostly agree with this view.

But the looming relegation of the older China hands to the history books also seems like a reason for reflection and just a touch of melancholy.

The first of my two encounters took me to the interior city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where I interviewed James Rice, a China veteran who has been in the country for the last two decades and goes by the colorful name of Dami, or "Big Rice."

The second wasn't even a personal meeting at all, and came through my reading of a profile in Shanghai Daily of David Rose, the 33-year-old China head of Virgin Atlantic airlines, who arrived in China just six months ago.

Somewhat appropriately, Virgin's Rose is making his new home in commercially focused Shanghai, which in many ways personifies the new China that is increasingly preferred as a national headquarters for multinationals.

By comparison, Rice is based in China's heartland where he's trying to globalize Shui Jing Fang, a famous brand of Chinese baijiu liquor that sold a stake to European spirits giant Diageo in 2011.

My encounter with Rice came during a two-hour interview at Shui Jing Fang's headquarters in an industrial suburb of Chengdu where the smell of fermenting rice liquor filled the air.

The interview was part of a bigger series for my research at Fudan University, where I'm compiling an "oral history" that chronicles the lives of Western executives working in China in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rice was just the kind of executive you would expect from that generation, casually dressed at our meeting and full of stories about all the interesting and unusual challenges he faced at a wide range of previous employers. A high point of his career came when he testified before the US Congress and worked behind the scenes with his local government guanxi to help avert a trade war involving chicken products imported to China.

While Rice learned his China skills during the country's "iron rice bowl" days, Virgin Atlantic's Rose more resembles the current generation of post-1980s Chinese (balinghou) that populate many of the country's most dynamic companies.

Rose's career also looks far more geographically diverse than Rice's, including a previous posting in Kenya before his arrival in Shanghai.

The published interview with Rose looks slick and tightly focused. The central message is clear and consistent, aimed at showing Virgin as a young and hip airline that is "Putting the glamor back in flying," as the article's headline reads (Shanghai Daily, May 18).

By comparison, Rice spends much of his time trying to figure out how to integrate many of Shui Jing Fang's older employees who grew up in an era of state ownership into a newer, more entrepreneurial company that Diageo wants to create.

During my own two decades in China, I've met plenty of people from both the older generation of China hands like Rice and the newer one of career people represented by Rose.

Whereas the former often see China itself as their life's work, many of the latter see the country as just another stop on their longer career path.

Some may debate whether these older China hands like Rice are really destined for extinction, ultimately to be replaced by a newer breed of professionals like Rose, as China becomes more integrated with the rest of the world.

It certainly feels like you see less and less of these more seasoned China hands these days, though perhaps that's partly due to my own decision to live and work in Shanghai. Perhaps it's all relative, as more of the newer global professionals flood into the market and the more seasoned China veterans take up new challenges in less developed areas like Chengdu.

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164