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To Go or Not to Go

Taiwanese Professionals Eye China


Global competition is compelling young Taiwanese to grapple with the sticky issue of job prospects across the Taiwan Strait. But while the opportunities may be abundant, what are the tradeoffs?



Taiwanese Professionals Eye China

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 370 )

Chaoyang District, Beijing.

At the hippest of the hip bars, Face, a coterie of young Taiwanese MicroSerfs are the only Asian faces in the establishment. Tu Wen, Li Yang-ju, and Wang Chian-chiao, ranging in age from 27 to 40, have left the US and Taiwan to pick up their lives in Beijing.

“In the four months before I came to Microsoft, I got calls from four different head hunters,” relates Wang Chian-chiao.

“Here wages are adjusted 20 to 30 percent each year. In addition to performance, a further 10 percent comes from market growth,” notes Li Yang-ru.

Promotions, raises, and market growth sound like the kind of professional honing young people are looking for, but there are tradeoffs involved: breaking up with a girlfriend, giving up the quality of life of Taiwan or the U.S., and having to deliberately cultivate relationships with locals. “You’re always worrying about getting cheated, afraid of subordinates backstabbing you, and you don’t even know when you’ll need them,” interjects Tu Wen, his upbeat demeanor darkening.

It is a trade-off of sorts. To the west of Taiwan lies a vast economy growing at over 10 percent each year. Over 90 percent of Taiwan’s major corporations have already set up operations in China, and multinationals are only increasing the intensity with which they are developing this market of 1.3 billion people. Considering the saturation of Taiwan’s own economy and the continual infighting on the domestic political scene, for many Taiwanese thirtysomethings the question “to go or not to go” to China is weighing heavier on their minds all the time.

For young Taiwanese, close linguistic and cultural backgrounds, increasingly close exchanges, and the experiences of the older generation help bring the Chinese Dream closer at hand.

Springboard to the Global Stage

To go or not to go, that is the question. Put somewhat differently, what do you need to give up in return for the unlimited opportunities China promises?

Last month National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Business Administration professor Ruey-Shiang Guo took a straw poll among his MBA students. Out of 30 students, 40 percent indicated their willingness to take jobs in China after completing their degree. “The reason is simple: they believe there are lots of opportunities there,” says Guo.

For many young Taiwanese, taking jobs in China is the simplest move toward globalization. Given close linguistic and cultural backgrounds, increasingly close exchanges, and the experiences of the older generation to draw upon, the Chinese Dream is no longer distant.

A poll conducted last year by the Straits Exchange Foundation found that 15 percent of all Taiwanese currently have family members investing in, working in, or living in China, while 17 percent of those polled had resided across the strait for a total of over three months or more. Extrapolating from Taiwan’s adult population of 17.1 million over the age of 20, that means that 2.5 million Taiwanese are currently working or living in China, and 2.9 million have resided there at one time or another.

Based on these indicators one can anticipate that with the opening of direct cross-strait transportation links, the number of Taiwanese working in China could easily grow exponentially.

A special report produced by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company last year, “Serving the New Chinese Consumer,” indicated that within the next 10 to 15 years local Chinese corporations alone will need 75,000 leaders capable of handling the global environment. Further, over the past five years 30 to 40 percent of senior managers at multinationals have been lured away from their positions, with salaries climbing at an average of 14 percent per year.

Overseas and Taiwanese companies alike are increasing their investments in the Chinese market, progressing from gaining a foothold, to actively cultivating, and ultimately making major strategic moves there, producing a robust demand for human resources.

Competitive Weaknesses of Taiwan’s Best

Two years ago Compal selected 30 university seniors to undergo an intensive short-term training program before dispatching them directly to the company’s facility in Kunshan. Charlie Chou, general manager of Chuang-Chou Management Consultant Co., Ltd., offers: “They’re like professional soldiers. Unlike grunts just fulfilling their mandatory military service, they’re being groomed to fight their entire professional lives on that front, so they are asked to fit in and become ‘Taiwanese with mainland Chinese characteristics’ to fight for their company.”

Still, if migrating westward were as simple as it sounds and making a career there as wonderful as it seems, nobody would be having qualms or looking into everything so thoroughly.

A veteran of positions at Proctor & Gamble and Master Kang, Allen Hu has been working in China as director of Beijing Wei-Chuan Food’s Business Department for just three years, but is already starting to appreciate the cruel reality that “the longer you stay in China the harder it is to go back to Taiwan.”

China’s market conditions are vastly different from those of Taiwan. For many Taiwanese executives, experience in China does little to enhance their job prospects should they return home. Moreover, the Chinese market is vast and fast moving, and businesses not doing well in one place often pack up and go somewhere else. In addition, individual positions are highly fluid, making firings and demotions common.

“It’s hard on people when their nation’s economy is doing poorly,” says an exasperated Allen Hu. “A lot of friends that used to swear they would never come to [live and work in] China are now considering it.” Among the Taiwanese friends of his that play basketball with him in Beijing, even those that have left big companies often choose to start their own businesses in China. With the verve and ideals small- and medium-sized Taiwanese businesses exemplified back in the day, they seek out opportunity in second- and third-tier cities where the markets are not yet saturated.

What everyone seems to be keen on is the opportunity discussed in a major Wall Street Journal article on foreign enterprises and human resources in China last August. Nevertheless, Mandy Wang, CEO and managing director of China International Fund Management, reminds us that although things are just starting to take off, Taiwanese aces are at a competitive disadvantage in a finance industry that plays largely by international rules, due to their poor understanding of the local market. “How many of China’s more than 1000 listed companies are you familiar with? How well do you know the investment experience of your local clients?” In the Chinese market, Taiwanese people can be lured into complacence by a common language and culture, but in reality, they should be psychologically prepared to “start from scratch.”

Mainlanders learn quickly. When you’re more expensive than the locals, you must be mentally prepared to be replaced. Andy Lin, marketing director of Bright Dairy and Food’s Fresh Dairy Division, has resided in China for 13 years, yet his Shanghai office is so sparsely furnished it appears as if he is ready to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. Bright Dairy and Food is China’s third-largest dairy company. The company chairman speaks Shanghainese during meetings, switching to Mandarin only when he notices Lin is listening. The five people under Lin are responsible for an annual sales volume of four billion renminbi.

Lin has thought about returning to Taiwan, yet he knows very well that his network of contacts has long eroded away. And even though sales of the company’s yogurt products grew by 40 percent in just one year, he knows that he will simply not be at the same position for more than three years. “Mainlanders learn quickly. When you’re more expensive than the locals, you must be mentally prepared to be replaced.”

Remaining in China more than three or four years could easily amount to a one-way ticket. The immigrant nature of Taiwanese society gives people romantic notions about striking out to find riches in foreign lands. At the same time, a sense of pride can hold back those that do not find such good fortune, and keep them in China for fear of losing face back home.

Just One Neighborhood in a Global Community

While many people believe that Beijing and Shanghai are the best ways for Taiwanese to approach the world, Lin Suzhen begs to differ.

During the summer of 2003, IBM corporate headquarters in Armonk, New York made a phone call to Tokyo indicating that the executive vice president in charge of human resources at headquarters was looking for a special assistant. After sifting through the data on qualified candidates around the world, they asked 33 year-old Lin Suzhen to report to New York for an interview in three days.

Having worked for IBM in Japan for three years at the time, Lin was in Beijing on business when she received the call. She grabbed her bags and flew straight to New York, finally emerging after 11 separate interviews as the first Asian to hold that position at IBM.

“I was lucky that IBM happened to be looking to move deeper into the Asian human resource market, so they chose me to go over there.” Although she seems relaxed, she is like New York Yankees pitcher Chien-ming Wang, ready to answer the call, take the mound and strike someone out when needed.

Lin’s current position is Asian regional executive talent team leader, in charge of the development and assignment of senior executives in India, South Asia, Greater China, Japan, Korea, and Oceania.

“Young people who only focus on the Greater China region are taking too unitary an approach; the youths of Australia, India, and China do not see the Asia Pacific region as their only option. The world is a big place; it’s okay to have more diversity of imagination,” observes Lin. The holder of a bachelor’s degree in law from National Chengchi University and a master’s in law from Tokyo University, Lin chose to settle in at IBM Tokyo largely due to her fondness for Japan’s living environment and gastronomic culture. “If young Taiwanese like Taipei’s lifestyle and choose to stay in Taipei, that’s fine, because we should apply ourselves where we’re happy,” she offers.

Xu Zhusheng, general manager of IBM’s Greater China Strategic and Business Development Division, sees the decision to work in China as a question of deciding on better job opportunities or a better life. However, he reminds us that the most talented people can go after opportunities in the U.S. or Europe, where they can have both a good job and a good life.

Telly Kuo, VP and general manager of Asia Pacific operations for the Optoma Corporation, freshly returned to Taipei from three weeks on business in China, Korea, and Australia, is another individual that takes a global perspective.

Do you want to marry rich and be an anonymous wife all your life, or do you want to help your husband make it big and become a leader? Kuo previously worked at Phillips, where he rose to Taiwan regional sales director, but he could not help but be disturbed by the nagging feeling that he was just one of Phillips’ limbs and would never be its brains. With that realization he resolved to leave Phillips and join Optoma, an independent brand funded by investment from Coretronic. Since then, he has helped make Optoma the world’s number two brand in projectors.

“My approach is simple: do you want to marry rich and be an anonymous wife all your life, or do you want to help your husband make it big and become a leader?” Just as a small country like the Netherlands can produce a corporate giant like Phillips, Kuo is confident that Taiwan can make the entire world its stage. “Where an office is located isn’t that important. What’s important is the cohesiveness and sense of belonging you get from making something grow as a team.”

Wherever there’s a war, that’s where Caesar goes. And Rome is always in Caesar’s heart.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman