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Is the sun setting on expat bankers in China?

Does a changing of the guard at the top of HSBC – in which an experienced Chinese banker replaced a foreigner – symbolise the declining fortunes of expatriate professionals in mainland China?

Only to a limited extent. Banks are increasingly trying to localise their headcounts, but they still rely on imported talent in some functions, especially in Shanghai.

Earlier this month HSBC announced the appointment of Helen Wong – a 26-year HSBC veteran hailing from a background in syndicated finance and debt capital markets – to become its new China president and CEO.

Pending regulatory approval, Wong will replace UK national Richard Yorke, who has been CEO since 2005. Yorke’s backgrounds fits that of the quintessential expatriate banker, with stints scattered around the world in the US, Indonesia, and the Channel Islands, as well as his most recent roles in China.

Kensy Sy, Beijing-based head of banking and finance at Talent2, says 70 per cent of his firm’s placements are local Chinese candidates, while 30 per cent are expatriates – mostly from Hong Kong or Singapore.

But there are marked differences between China’s two main cities. In Shanghai, where most of the banks’ multinational clients are based, half of Talent2’s roles are filled by expat bankers, explains Sy. Meanwhile, in Beijing, which mainly hosts local privately owned companies as well as state-owned enterprises (SOEs), jobs predominately go to Chinese applicants, he says.

“Besides Hong Kong, Shanghai is more international and maybe the easiest city for expats to start working in China. On the other hand, the capital is filled with SOEs and it would be difficult for expats to deal with them without years of working experience in China,” adds Sy.

He says banks typically hire expats to fill middle and back-office roles such as risk management (credit risk and credit approval) for their corporate banking operations. Investment banks, by contrast, are more likely to either base most of their China team in Hong Kong, or hire sea turtles – overseas Chinese returnees – rather than foreigners.

Cherol Cheuk, director of banking at Hudson, says both foreign and even local Chinese banks have continued to hire expatriates, although their recruitment is largely limited to c-suite executives and to specialist roles requiring technical knowledge. Candidates need some previous China exposure even for these positions.

Recruiters say of all foreign lenders in China, Standard Chartered has remained the most open to expat candidates because it has been growing too fast to fill vacancies with local talent alone.

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