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Three ways that China will come to your business wherever you are

“Why should I care about the state of foreign business in China,” I hear a lot as my book Dragon Suit hits retail stores today. “What do the number of foreigners, the dependence of global firms on the Chinese market or Beijing’s policies to attract foreign investment have to do with my business?” And while the enquirer’s company might pack tuna in Thailand, develop financial software for American multinationals or manufacture some obscure part for electric cars, there are many straightforward reasons why they should care deeply. Here are three that have seemed to touch the nerve in recent conversations, and come across quite clearly in the book. Promotion to international leadership means working with China As CEOs and other executives told me at my interviews for Dragon Suit, being promoted to an international leadership position usually requires the candidate to work with China in a global context. China has long been considered a catalyst of executive careers at global firms, whether through a direct expat assignment in the PRC (People’s Republic of China) itself or from a nearby branch in charge of the China market, like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok. “if I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere”—Sinatra’s lyrics are about China today. But promotion from local to international responsibilities means having to deal with China even from Boston, Berlin or Bishkek, because China represents half of the global market in construction materials, pork, electric cars, online shopping and lots more. Ironically, Chinese managers promoted to international positions from local branches must develop the same strategic skillsets as their expat colleagues: China is huge, and they get to high jobs without ever dealing with foreigners. Whatever happens to “the Asian century” in the next seven-plus decades, so far it has gravitated around China.

expats in China foreign firms in China

Knowing how China works helps leaders worldwide Most “Dragon Suits” (China-based expatriate executives) quoted in the book are in another country now, including headquarters (the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Europe), on another expat posting (Russia, Singapore, India, Mexico) or at a digital nomad paradise (Portugal and Thailand are particularly popular). Wherever they are, they tell me how they benefit from their years, experience and network accumulated in China. Look at the countries mentioned above to realise how some of them fell behind the frantic pace of lean-and-agile development of recent decades, while others are just taking off. Former China expats and frequent visitors use China-inspired mental blueprints to get information, draft strategies, establish partnerships, get things done, adjust operations and evaluate results quickly, efficiently and flexibly. They often do this deliberately or inadvertently, often with a critical attitude to China. Human Resources managers tell me they would need more such people to disrupt outdated practices and build future-proof new ones. China has a blueprint for the future ‘Dragon Suits’ can pick and choose jobs because those who believe that Beijing writes the book of the future and those who try to “decouple” and “derisk” actually play the same game. Executives I coach from global automotive, chemical, luxury and legal services firms tell me why they go all-in while China’s next development chapter is still an underrated opportunity. Leaders at struggling industries like machinery, medical, aviation and energy firms plot to circumvent China. But wherever they go, they must contend with inevitable Chinese suppliers, competitors or infrastructure built under the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) or another of Beijing’s programmes with Chinese specifications. Granted, we don’t know if China’s master plans will save the world or implode. As I mention in Dragon Suit, When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques and Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China were both published over a decade ago, and their opposing fan bases still wait for the inevitable victory or collapse. Either way, managers in charge of alternative supply strategies must know what China wants and how it works in Asia, the Middle East, Africa or the West itself.

Get Dragon Suit: The golden age of expatriate executives in China on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your favourite book retailer.

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