The market for Hong Kong-trained MBAs is extremely lucrative in China, but graduates should have China experience, speak fluent Mandarin, and be familiar with the cultural environment, say mainland industry experts. China will need 350,000 senior mana-gers in the next five years but has only 15,000 MBA graduates in the country, according to information released by the Ministry of Education. The gap is bigger than it is for chartered accountants and lawyers, who also rank as some of the most needed professionals in China. Of graduate exams completed for the autumn 2002 academic year, the most popular was the MBA. China produces 5,000 to 10,000 MBAs a year, according to information gathered from local media and market research - more than double the number it could train two years ago. But even that number is still far short of the demand for MBA-qualified people. Hong Kong-trained MBAs can fill part of the gap, says Tang Wanming, an executive assistant for Shenzhen-based United Securities. They have the advantage of speaking better English, greater familiarity with the China environment than their US and European counterparts, and the benefits that come from close business ties between Hong Kong and the mainland. Liu Haitao, deputy director-general of Shenzhen Overseas Chinese High-Tech Venture Park, says Hong Kong-trained MBAs can secure a niche in Hong Kong companies whose main businesses are based in China. Mr Liu cautioned, however, that Hong Kong MBAs should speak fluent Mandarin. Mr Liu, who helps overseas Chinese people find jobs and start businesses in Shenzhen on behalf of the municipal government, says most enterprises do not put too much emphasis on an overseas degree. He believes, however, that a Hong Kong-trained MBA originally from the mainland has a unique advantage. Xia Qiu, with an MBA from France, and now deputy general manager of Shenzhen Winyear Technology, believes China's cultural environment will prove an even bigger challenge than language. In China, one has to invest a great amount of time establishing and fostering relationships to build up business, as one cannot rely on the nation's legal and credit system, which is still not securely in place. Kevin Li, an executive with Western Hunter, a well-known headhunter and human resources consultant based in Shenzhen, says promotions and remunerations these days are based more on ability and past accomplishments than on degrees. Most multinationals are looking to localise their companies, while the local talents are demanding salaries comparable to their foreign colleagues, he adds. Expatriates have always been paid much higher salaries than their local counterparts doing the same job. Now, however, the gap has significantly narrowed, and salary levels should eventually converge, he says. Mr Tang, who attracted media attention by being the first Chinese to receive a bank loan to study overseas, received his MBA in Germany last year. Prior to his MBA, he made about 100,000 yuan (HK$95,500) a year at the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, doing asset management. His current job at United Securities, as a senior analyst in the M & A department, offers less stability in terms of remunerations but greater prospects. 'In a good year, the position rakes in 250,000-300,000 yuan. Last year I made about 150,000 yuan because the market was bad.' Mr Tang says it was not the immediate money but the long-term prospects that attracted him to do his MBA overseas. A few private enterprises tried to lure him to join management, but he preferred to focus on finance before venturing further afield. His wife, Zhou Min, whom he met in his MBA class, saw a significant rise in her salary after she returned to Shenzhen and worked for Pingan Insurance in CRM (customer relationship management). Her annual salary now is 80,000 yuan, compared with 10,000 yuan in the early days. Chen Ye, an MBA who graduated from the reputable Tongji University, claims his domestic MBA is just as recognised as the foreign ones. 'My training helped me provide financial planning and consulting for the more than 100 start-ups in the Shenzhen High-Tech Industrial Park. Most of the business owners are technical people, and I feel I can really give them a hand with my management training.' It is not uncommon for firms in China - from state-owned enterprises to multinationals and private enterprises - to offer remuneration in keeping with international standards. Recently, a state-owned developer in Dalian was hiring vice-presidents and senior managers for the company, at annual salaries ranging between 300,000 yuan and 500,000 yuan. Promising prospects for MBA graduates have resulted in a lowering of quality and admission standards at many of the less distinguished schools, according to one executive. Operating an MBA programme has become one of the most lucrative businesses in China. A total of 62 institutes were able to offer the programme by July 2001, compared with a handful three years ago. Admissions for MBAs and MBA programmes have soared sharply in recent years, from 2,000 graduates in 1999 to 15,000 in 2000. Today, about 47,000 MBAs have been recruited in China and 32,000 are still studying. Fees range from 9,000 yuan a year to tens of thousands for more reputable schools such as Tsinghua and Beijing University.