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ON THE JOB

Casting Your Lot With China

If you believe the American empire is falling and the Chinese rising, you may be tempted to try to make your living in China.

The most common way Americans make a living in China, not surprisingly, is by teaching English to the Chinese or to American children in an international school. In the latter situation, work conditions and pay are above average, plus you may meet parents who could get you another job if you tire of teaching.

In Living Abroad in China, Stuart and Barbara Strother recommend trying to land an international-school job through a Council of International Schools job fair. Candidates need a public-school teaching certificate. To find such a job via the Internet, try TIE Online. Or use Appalachians Abroad (based at Marshall University), which matches teachers with Chinese schools and provides pre-departure training for $1,350 for fall placement and $1,050 for spring placement.

Outside of teaching, the Strothers estimate that 40% of the jobs in China for Americans are in sales and marketing; 20% in engineering; 10% in management, including accounting and finance; and 5% in information technology. For such jobs in China, U.S. companies advertise heavily on Monster.com while Chinese companies tend to use Zhaopin.com.

You can find both teaching and non-teaching job listings at ChinaJob.com.

Josh Wood, who runs ExpatExchange.com, an online community for U.S. expatriates, warns, "We've had people on our site talk about job openings that do not nearly resemble what they were promised. Are these the result of poor communication or misleading tactics? It's often hard to tell. So doing your homework is critical." For example, before accepting a job, talk with Americans who work there.

Starting a Business in China

As in the old Wild West, today's Wild East contains many gaps between people's needs and what businesses provide, so fortunes can be made. You can't do much from the U.S., but Jack Perkowski, principal in JFP Holdings, a merchant bank that helps businesses set up in China, and author of the book and blog Managing the Dragon, believes that if you "wisely spend two weeks in China, you'll leave with ten good business ideas."

How? Guanxi, or connections, are key to getting crucial inside information. So in planning your trip, try to get in touch with Americans living in China. Don't know anyone? Find contacts through your college alumni directory. Tell them you would like to meet with them in hopes of being introduced to Chinese people who could be helpful. Expats and Chinese people are quite open to such meetings.

Jonathan Woetzel, director of McKinsey's China office and coauthor of Operation China, adds, "Walk around the stores to see what people are buying, and while you're there, talk to the U.S. Commercial Service and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council for their views."

Woetzel adds these specific business ideas: "Obviously, it's easiest to get started at importing and exporting. But lots of interesting businesses can be started in China -- for example, organic farms to appeal to rising health consciousness of consumers, and spa and beauty services for high-end consumers. And then there are all the industrial service companies -- for example, Web services to integrate China businesses."

Perkowski touts some other opportunities: "Environmental technology that's proven. Health care -- from investing in hospitals to selling equipment to providing health-care services, such as a clinic for mothers of newborns. Services such as car-repair shops and auto-parts retailers. Also, China has 85 million businesses compared with just 25 million in the U.S., creating a tremendous need for distributors."

Caveats

Entrepreneurship in China isn't for the faint of heart.

For example, financing is a problem. You probably can't get a business loan from a Chinese or American bank, so you may have to start with your own money and expand using the business's cash flow.

Mike Saxon, author of An American's Guide to Doing Business in China, warns against being seduced by China's apparently low cost of products and labor. "While the direct price may be cheaper, there are many hidden costs: mistakes due to miscommunication; different customs, ethics (for example, a tendency of workers to cut corners when not directly supervised) and standards; the cost of getting favorable and expedited government attention -- or, failing that, the cost of not getting favorable and expedited attention."

Perkowski offers an example: "We had a judgment against a company but couldn't collect until we discovered that the local secretary has power over the court -- and that person got us our money."

Every culture has its business ploys, and the Chinese are no exception. ExpatExchange.com's Wood says, "Negotiating can be a minefield if you don't know what you are doing." For example, if you're visiting China for a week to try to negotiate a deal, your Chinese counterpart may stall until five minutes before you have to leave for the airport and then make a lowball offer, knowing you don't want to leave without an agreement.

A Lazy Person's Approach to Capitalizing on China

Personally, I'm not enticed by living outside the U.S., but I do believe China has a much brighter future than does the U.S. So I'm taking the lazy man's approach: I'm heavily invested in Chinese exchange-traded funds, including:

  • iShares FTSE Xinhua China 25 index (symbol FXI), China's equivalent of the Dow Jones industrial average.

  • SPDR S&P China (GXC), China's equivalent of the S&P 500.

  • PowerShares Golden Dragon Halter USX China (PGJ), an index of Chinese stocks less correlated with the former two.

Further reading

China Expat
ExpatExchange
The China Observer (Local observations, global implications)
Managing the Dragon
Danwei (Media, marketing and urban life in China)
China Blog List

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.