Go East, Young Man

Lunching With Gold-Rushers

These Yale MBA students are preparing to seek their fortune in China. What advice can they give me?

Despite the title of this series, I myself, sadly, am no longer a “young man,” so I’m not seriously planning to “go east” for the duration. I wondered if I would consider it if I were still in my 20s. To get a sense of how real young businessmen and businesswomen are thinking about China, I drove up yesterday to Yale’s School of Management. There, in a corner of the cacophonous dining hall, I had lunch with 10 MBA students who were days away from leaving on a two-week China study trip.

The students reported that, although China is a hot topic at business schools, it still pales in comparison to Wall Street. India is also a focus (perhaps even more of one, since India is seen to be taking high-skill jobs, while China’s just taking the low-skill ones). Two years ago, the students say, the get-rich-quick China dream known as “chasing the dragon” electrified campus, but interest has now mellowed to the sense that the country will be there—and be important—for decades.

The students are about to embark on Yale’s third annual China study trip, which is offered for credit. A glance at the two-week itinerary made me drool: The students will visit with senior managers from two or three companies a day in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Beijing. More than a mere job-hunting tour, which many B-schools apparently offer, Yale’s is designed to offer real-time exposure to China business strategy. According to Mike Huang, an organizer of the trip and coordinator of Yale’s Greater China Student Interest Group, Western companies doing business in China are receptive to the visits and readily share their thinking. Chinese companies, however, tend to be reticent.

About two-thirds of the 20-odd student travelers intend to work in China. Some will work in consulting or finance—the same broad-based training platforms so popular in the United States—others in industry. One, a former dot-commer, happily admitted to “chasing the dragon,” and intends to build human-resources software for China-based companies. Another stressed that he was not seeking a quick score and simply wants to develop “global operating skills” useful for the next 40 years.

According to the students:

  • You can get by without speaking Mandarin, at least in some industries, but fluency boosts your credibility. Otherwise, you’re just the stereotypical “dumb-ass white guy.” This insight came from a white guy, who was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese and not a dumb ass. An Asian-American student, meanwhile, said that, given his appearance, everyone expected him to speak pristine Mandarin, and, when he didn’t, they assumed he was a dumb ass. From his perspective, therefore, the “dumb-ass white guy” shtick was helpful, at least in emergencies.

  • American consulting firms, some of the major expat employers in China, generally serve multinationals trying to set up shop in the country and multinationals that are already there but failing. Some firms, like McKinsey & Co., also try to consult for local Chinese companies, but the Chinese are still apparently reluctant to buy services, so margins are low. This distaste for services, as opposed to products, was attributed to China’s being earlier in the business lifecycle than the United States. (Over the last century, America’s economy has transitioned from manufacturing to services.) China is catching up fast, though.

  • From a business perspective, China is still akin to the wild west. The Chinese are “exceptionally entrepreneurial,” the students agreed, although there were no convincing explanations as to why. An ancient tradition of supporting family members, a dearth of social support services, and a desire to escape desperate poverty all seemed reasonable theories, but none seemed to pinpoint a unique quality that sets the Chinese apart.

With luck, I’ll catch up with the students in Beijing, where I’ll sit in on a meeting with a Chinese real-estate company and not understand a word.

The Pursuit of Truth Department (cont.)—in which I revisit issues, errors, and misconceptions introduced in previous Go East columns, with the goal of eventually getting things right. Please continue to send feedback, corrections, and suggestions to chinagoldrush@yahoo.com.

Dragon Air. After an outcry from readers that I could not possibly be flying “Dragon Air” from Shanghai to Beijing because “Dragonair” was a Hong Kong-based airline that did not fly domestic routes, I checked my tickets, and, sure enough, Dragonair is handling my Hong Kong-Shanghai leg. Readers also assured me that Dragonair flies super-modern planes and is way better than most airlines in the United States, so I’ve got that to look forward to. According to the Web site, they also serve “fragrant, Fook Ming Tong” tea even in cattle class.

Mythical chickens. It appears that my college roommate may have hallucinated when he saw chickens on the Shanghai-Beijing train, because one reader scoffed at this claim. Maybe things have changed in the past 10 years. In any case, several readers heartily recommended the train, and I may spurn Air China Ltd., and take it.

Visa update. Last week, when I was finally able to download some data from the hobbled consulate Web site, I noticed a tidbit about how journalists had to apply for a “J” visa (journalist), rather than a garden-variety “L” visa (tourist) and that, to get one, they had to present a letter of invitation from the “competent department of the Chinese government.” Well, getting a letter of invitation from the “competent department of the Chinese government” sounded like a colossal pain in the neck, so I was relieved to be a commentator, not a journalist. Still, at the consulate, when it came time to state my “purpose of visit,” I worried that the distinction might not translate, so I put down, “Sightseeing and writing for Slate.” I’ve heard nothing since, and, with luck, my visa is there waiting for me under the stern gaze of Ms. Ding. I did, however, hear from a real journalist, who cackled that, by buying my plane tickets before getting approved for a J-visa, I’d just wagered the cost of them.

Which reminded me that China takes the free-speech thing pretty seriously—or, rather, the controlled-speech thing—and suddenly I was gripped by images of rotting away in a Chinese jail after getting busted for writing about chickens on the train to Beijing. (According to one journalist who “vacationed” in Tibet only to find himself and his video equipment suddenly exported, the “competent department of the Chinese government” is keen to support journalists who extol the gleaming office towers and factories of Shanghai and Shenzhen, but less-than-thrilled by those who liken China to, say, Guatemala.) And that triggered a mental rant about the evils of repression and censorship and one-party rule, a silent tirade I continued right up until I discovered that the free-speech Mecca known as the United States also requires a journalist visa.

So, then I tried my best to figure out where, exactly, one could find the “competent department of the Chinese government” to beg for an invitation letter, but after several futile Web searches and phone calls, I gave up and dumped the headache in the lap of Slate’s publisher, who promised to look into it. At this writing, therefore, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to get a precious J-visa, whether I’ll just be able to see and not tell, or whether I have, in fact, bet and lost the cost of my plane tickets. I suppose I could always just go gamble for a week in Macau.

Thanks to Mike Huang, June Liang, Todd Horton, Matthew Sweeny, William Pott, North Lennox, Peter Lees, Mahmud Hiraj, Joel Stevenson, Chi Lai, and others who took the time to have lunch yesterday.