Chinese nationals who return to China are – slightly strangely – referred to as ‘sea turtles’ because it sounds the same as ‘returned from overseas’ in Mandarin. Now, it seems, these turtles are floundering in the sand rather than cruising on currents, at least when it comes to getting a banking job.
Ten years ago, global experience was the golden goose that secured a lucrative banking job when Chinese finance professionals returned home. They rose through the ranks quicker than those who stuck close to home, and were usually paid more.
But things have moved on. Returnees who have worked for global banks overseas are now novices on how things work locally in China.
The way that Chinese institutions are structured and how the internal system operates are alien to those coming into local banks for the first time. "Let’s take a very simple example, the relationship between shareholders, the board and the management within a Chinese bank. I can’t think of a single returnee who has really got this,” says a Shanghai-based veteran Chinese banker who has worked for both Chinese and Japanese banks for over two decades.
“Then you look at the internal politics of joint venture securities firms – believe me, these are not happy marriages,” he adds.
Despite heralding from China, a lot of returnees have spent their entire careers working for Western organisations. The result is a culture clash.
"The biggest problem for returnees is they are too ungrounded, too aloof from the ordinary daily Chinese life," points out Alina Yang, a consultant at Shanghai Cornerstone Global Partners, a search firm. She added that some of her clients, especially local private equity firms, specifically highlight that overseas experience isn't helpful because a substantial part of the PE deals are purely domestically-focused.
If someone comes back to China and joins the local office of a global bank, things might be easier as the working culture within the bank at least remains largely the same. But if they return to a local institution returnees' global experience becomes useless, or even a disadvantage.
A lot of this is down to the management in these institutions. Many local bosses don't even have a complete university education, let alone overseas experience. They worked their way up from the bottom, during which they developed a shrewd understanding of the nature of doing business in China. In addition they are also flexible enough to do whatever it takes to get things done. This is almost always not in line with the widely accepted practice in the Western world.
Yet more recently it’s the local firms that are stepping out of China and doing massive deals globally. Returnees therefore face a dilemma: working for these firms results in cultural conflicts that they may not be able to handle; yet walking away simply means they are not able to get in on the big deals.
Xianghui Li, General Manager and MD of Canyon Partners China, who is a returnee himself, is more upbeat: "One cannot change the environment, but one can adapt to the environment. Foreign ways also have value in China."