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When Mandarin is no longer enough for a mainland China banking job

When China’s finance sector first started opening up to the world about 15 years ago, global banks tended to parachute in so-called ‘overseas Chinese’ bankers to fill many of the top jobs.

The new recruits would typically hail from Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore, or would be second generation Chinese immigrants living in the West. No matter, they spoke Mandarin and senior management at headquarters would assume they understood the Chinese market and how Chinese people do business. Local bankers, it was thought, just didn’t have the right skills and experience.

Banks’ hiring policies are totally different today. Global, Hong Kong and Chinese banks alike are emphasising the importance of mainland expertise and now it’s the overseas Chinese that don’t fit the bill. Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Singaporean candidates – even those who can read and speak Mandarin – typically don’t have enough knowledge of the Chinese business world.

Cultural differences and the sheer size of the mainland market – it can take many years to build up client networks in China – mean the barriers to entry are increasingly too high for overseas Chinese candidates.

Hong Kong bankers can’t even get transferred to the mainland with Hong Kong banks. “Our preference goes to local Chinese candidates because they know the culture well – the ways of working and people’s behaviour,” says an HR director of a Hong Kong-based firm which is expanding across the border.

Alina Yang, a consultant at search firm Shanghai Cornerstone Global Partners, says she receives many CVs from Hong Kong and Taiwanese candidates for mainland China banking jobs, but her clients aren’t keen to hire people who lack mainland experience.

And some of the Taiwanese bankers who managed to get mainland jobs in the past are now starting to struggle. “I’ve got a few Taiwanese friends there who are now changing jobs once a year,” says Yang. “Perhaps it’s because they don’t quite fit into the mainland culture and can’t really find a sense of purpose in that market.”

To top it off, Hong Kong candidates aren’t necessarily welcome when mainland firms hire in Hong Kong – their Mandarin skills let them down. “When I call candidates, I speak Mandarin with them to find out their Mandarin ability,” says an HR manager of a Chinese securities firm in Hong Kong. “Some say in their CV that they’re very fluent in Mandarin, but on the phone they simply couldn’t understand me.”


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