Oldtimers in the capital of the world's fastest growing economy still talk about not long ago when it was rare to meet an Indian professional below 30 or a single woman from India, in China to pursue a career.
“Ten years ago, Indian professional migrants to Beijing were mostly 40-plus,” recalls R K Singh (56), president of the group Indian Community in Beijing (ICB), who moved here in 1998.
“Even three years ago, I would rarely meet single Indian women working in Beijing," says Singh, a hospitality industry veteran. “Gradually, more Indians are now arriving on top expat packages, as companies realise skilled Indians merge well with the local culture.”
While the US has nearly two million Indians, our largest neighbour China is home to hardly 25,000 Indian migrants. Most Indians in China remain a floating population who head home after three to five years. Barely 600-plus Indians are registered with the ICB in Beijing, a city of over 17 million. Bumping into an Indian on the streets is still a surprise.
But a new Indian export of young and highly skilled manpower is trickling in since the last three years, to ride China’s economic boom that was once linked to India only through the wholesale traders of plastic Ganeshas or electronics goods. They chase careers linked with China’s growth, from clean energy to cracking down on counterfeiting.
Last August, Arnab Ghosh (30) moved to Beijing as international sales manager for Suzlon Energy (Tianjin), the Beijing branch of the wind turbine major. “No other capital has as many wind energy offices as Beijing,” says Ghosh, one of three Indians in his 85-member office. “And to notch work experience in two of the world’s fastest growing economies is a big advantage. My only apprehension was the language.”
A former national-level badminton player, Gauri Ravi Narayan was 24 in 2006 when she traded in her sports gear for business suits, leaving Mumbai for her first foreign posting as deputy manager in the projects team of the Danish group Maersk China Shipping Company Limited. “Before I landed, all I knew about China was from Lonely Planet, the Internet and Chinese colleagues I had met during training in Denmark,” says Narayan, the youngest of six Indians in Maersk’s Beijing office.
Narayan opted for Beijing because it was the company’s busiest global export location. Before the perks of gym memberships and a 27th floor apartment in the Central Business District were realised, her initiation began during a dark subzero winter with six daily hours of Mandarin training for nearly five months, sponsored by the company at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
The preferred vegetarian ate peanut-flavoured kung pao chicken at the canteen, as she struggled to master a language where one word can have four meanings. While foreign companies do business in English, language remains a barrier outside their glass and chrome offices.
“Business-wise, it’s an exciting region to work in,” says Narayan. “Coming to China opened my eyes in terms of its infrastructure and the speed at which decisions are converted into actions. And the ratio of women to men is higher in my company!”
In 2005, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) specialist Mayank Vaid (31) was drawn to Beijing, as the world’s factory and now its second-largest car market spewed a wave of patent and IPR infringement issues multinationals struggle to tackle. “There are huge IPR challenges for companies in China,” says Vaid, a lawyer heading brand protection management for Northeast Asia at Daimler in Beijing. “A hunger for the big game brought me to Beijing after my stint with Daimler in Pune.”
While he has still not watched kung fu in China, Vaid has a frontline view of the global battle against counterfeiting of goods, trademarks and even petrol stations. “The problem of counterfeiting starts from the scale of fake toothpicks to higher-end goods, but it’s not a China-specific problem,” says Vaid, who is also vice-chairman of the Best Practices & Enforcement Committee of the China-based Quality Brands Protection Committee (QBPC). “The real problem is also that of counterfeiters in the Middle East, US and Europe who order fake goods out of China”.
The QBPC has about 180 multinational companies representing over 70 billion dollars in investment in China as members. Learning the nuances of work culture and openly lobbying with government officials in a foreign language was an initial challenge.
“In China, one’s professional learning curve remains on the rise as the country and its laws change rapidly,” says Vaid. “And every few months I bump into someone from Pune who has been here longer.”
The exchange of young professionals is also growing as companies like Infosys train new Chinese staff in India. Last year, China proposed to India that the two nations start exchange programmes for young entrepreneurs.