Chinese firms want to hire more Indians – if they can find the right ones

Reshma Patil

Chinese investors are ‘returning’ to India. The headline, in a Beijing-based newspaper, appeared days after India and China ended a 73-day face-off on the disputed Sino-Bhutan border.

At the same time in a northern suburb of Mumbai, a housewife who first studied Mandarin in her late thirties was fine-tuning an English-Mandarin job portal that she plans to launch next month to facilitate recruitment for Chinese companies based in India and China. Usha Sahoo launched Yeh China Education, a language and placements company, about seven years ago. It now has about 40 centres in India.

“Since the last two years,” says Sahoo, “we’ve seen a lot of demand from Chinese companies to recruit Indians who can speak, read and write Mandarin. But the Chinese find it very difficult to reach Indian candidates. And most job portals are in English, so they are not really effective in China.”

From mountains to sea-lanes, geopolitical disputes between Asia’s two rival neighbours occasionally derail the bilateral relationship. Beijing’s warnings of military confrontation during the Doklam dispute from June to August had also raised questions of the sustainability of Sino-Indian economic and trade ties. The Chinese chamber of commerce in Bangalore, for example, hosted a group of investors ‘almost every other day,’ reported the Global Times. The frequency dropped to one group per week during the border stand-off but began to gradually increase in September.

Chinese investment in India, though 17th highest compared to 35th seven years ago, is below one per cent of total FDI inflows in India. Japan, in contrast, represents 7.6 per cent. Indian investment in China is less than a billion dollars at $705 million.

But according to hiring trends of Chinese companies, China’s corporate sector remained keen to scale the great wall at Doklam and get back to business.

Rare Human Resources

They may be the world’s two most populous economies. But Indian companies in China struggle to retain Chinese manpower, and Chinese companies in India struggle to recruit them in the first place.

Nearly 55,500 Non-Resident Indians lived in China in 2016 according to official Indian data. The current size of the Indian community in China is twice as high compared to a decade ago, but relatively low in comparison to 45,000 NRIS in just Hong Kong and 100,000 NRIs in Philippines. About 20,000 Chinese live in India according to 2015 estimates.

“There are good Chinese managers and there are good Indian managers,’’ notes Santosh Pai, a partner at Link Legal India Law Services, a firm headquartered in New Delhi, that also collaborates with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. “But it’s a common refrain that it’s difficult to find a good Indian manager to work for a Chinese company and a good Chinese manager to work for an Indian company.”

The demand for this niche group of executives, Pai says, is ‘huge’.

Chinese FDI in India has diversified from the automobile sector, steel and power generation to smartphones, electronics, renewable energy, real estate and mobile wallets.  Chinese majors like Huawei are well-established in India — it operates its largest R&D centre outside China in Bangalore with a few thousand Indian employees. But junior-level Chinese executives exploring India for the first time regularly complain not only about visa and procedural delays but also of a language and cultural barrier in an unfamiliar economy — roughly 1 out of 600 annual Chinese outbound travellers visit India.

In The Silk Road Rediscovered, authors Anil K Gupta, Girija Pande and Haiyan Wang interviewed a Chinese executive whose company wanted to build a local team but faced ‘a big challenge to figure out who the right people could be and to build trust’.

In China, Chinese CEOs and executives I met would always marvel about India’s skilled labour pool. “How come Indians speak English so well?’’ they asked. When they come to India, they find themselves wishing that more people could understand their own language and culture.

Earlier this month, Nazia Vasi, CEO of Inchin Closer, an India-China language and business consultancy, announced that her company would also start corporate placements. Vasi posted job alerts that may not be openly advertised. A Chinese air-conditioner manufacturer was looking for a Mandarin speaker in Ahmedabad. A Chinese real estate company required Mandarin-speaking staff in three cities that are emerging as hotspots for Chinese investment — Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.

“It’s just opening up now,” says Vasi about recruitment by Chinese firms in India. “The Chinese don’t know how to reach out to Indian recruiters and Indian recruiters don’t understand the high level of Mandarin language skills required to place Indian candidates. Indian universities don’t have tie-ups with companies. The talent pool of high-level Mandarin students is small, so recruitment can’t take off in a big way … it will gradually develop.”

Learning Chinese is not cheap. A 400-hour course with examinations recognised in China can cost up to Rs 1 lakh in India. Job openings for Mandarin interpreters may offer low-level salaries starting at around Rs 5 lakh per year.

Work Culture Contrasts

The Indian Institute of Management in northeastern Shillong offers a one-of-its-kind 14-month course to train postgraduate executives to work in the India-China business sector. The course includes a four-month internship and language-training in China.

Pai, who teaches the ‘legal and constitutional aspects of India-China business’ at IIM Shillong argues that the challenge of training Indian and Chinese manpower to work together goes beyond the language issue.  Interested players in India need to understand mutual business practices, cross-cultural communication and negotiation, he suggests, and emphasises the need for a greater exposure to Chinese culture, history and politics to ‘overcome prejudices’.

Indian companies, from five-star hotel chains to domestic airlines, already book corporate trainers for crash courses on Chinese language and culture for Indian executives. Twenty per cent of the Mandarin course at Inchin Closer, for example, focuses on cultural issues — the importance of punctuality is prominent in the training. Sahoo’s modules also emphasise nuances such as respecting each other’s food habits and the art of Chinese gift giving. Fruit baskets are appreciated, she says, and talking about yoga is a recommended conversation starter.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Chinese manufacturing, investment and real estate companies are scouting for Mandarin speakers for entry-level sales and marketing staff. They are eyeing candidates below 30 years who are willing to travel. Almost every Chinese company interested in investing in India needs recruiters to help them find full-time interpreters to operate the day-to-day business, from translating Chinese documents to helping Indian and Chinese colleagues interact daily; the task is arguably unappealing to highly skilled Indian professionals.

“The freelancer and interpreter tag should be replaced with business development or corporate trainer labels,’’ suggests Sahoo.

At the senior level, notes Pai, Indian managers with over a decade’s experience are accustomed to autonomy at work. They find it ‘difficult to cope with the hierarchical structures within Chinese companies where information tends to flow bottom up and decisions flow from the top.’

Perceptions of India among Chinese expats, on the other hand, are mainly based on reports in the Chinese media that depict the Indian economy as backward compared to the Chinese economy. Recent Chinese travel safety advisories issued twice in the three-month long Doklam crisis may have strengthened negative perceptions and the trust deficit on both sides. Chinese smartphone makers Oppo and Vivo, as The Economic Times reported, sent 400 expats home during the dispute.

“The number of Chinese relocating to India with their families is slowly growing,” says Pai. “But India is still not an ideal location from a Chinese perspective.’’

Companies outside China have noticed that Indians are speaking Mandarin. Sahoo has begun to receive corporate requests to find Indian candidates fluent in English and Mandarin to operate Indian business process outsourcing or BPO centres of Western companies with Chinese consumers.

“Chinese speakers in India,’’ notes Sahoo, “are more affordable to recruit than in China.’’ If only more Indians spoke Mandarin, then they might be the newest export in the curious Sino-Indian business relationship.

(This blog was also published on The Quint)