Industry players and accounting experts have urged students from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) to take advantage of the accounting opportunities offered by the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa). The challenge was made at the Business Forum 2004 held on Thursday. Organised by the Accounting Students' Society, part of the HKUST Student Union, the forum explored the opportunities and challenges facing Hong Kong accounting graduates working in the mainland. 'The accounting profession is rising like a phoenix,' said Professor Gary Biddle, associate dean and head of accounting at HKUST. 'But along with the opportunities there are challenges.' Sizing up the opportunities, Peter Wan, a member of the mainland affairs committee at the Hong Kong Society of Accountants, said that there had never been such 'a positive opportunity' in the mainland before. 'I have personally seen a lot of our clients invest in China, and have personally helped a lot of companies in China to tap the capital markets of the world,' Mr Wan said. 'The good news is that there is a great demand for accountants.' Leo Lee Chi-ming, president of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, said that Cepa gave a fast track for Hong Kong companies to take advantage of the high-growth economy seen in the mainland. 'When there is an increase in business in the mainland, there will be an increase in the need for accounting,' he said. Many foreign companies were also creating additional opportunities when they bought Hong Kong companies to enter the mainland, he said. Although there was a surge in opportunities, Mr Lee said competition was greater because accounting standards in the mainland were also improving. 'In the 1990s, we were treated as teachers; now we are equals,' he said. Mr Wan said the number of accounting professionals from the mainland was rising. 'Twenty years ago, there were hardly any good accounting students in the mainland, but now there are a lot of them,' Mr Wan said. Teddy Iu, immediate past president of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, cautioned students about their perceived advantages over their mainland counterparts. 'Proficiency in English no longer provides an advantage in the mainland,' Mr Iu said. 'In Beijing, there are students who have a very good command of the English language, on top of Putonghua.' Environmental differences might also provide some challenges, he said. 'Hong Kong people have grown up in a good and regulated environment but in the mainland, most of the people have grown up in a tough and harsh environment,' he said. 'This means they are not only different culturally but also think differently.' In terms of accounting skills, Mr Wan said the mainland was catching up. 'They do not possess the skills yet but do not think we are superior,' he said. Derek Lai Kar-yan, Hong Kong councillor at CPA Australia, advised students to change their perceptions about the mainland. 'Students in Hong Kong are intelligent and hard working,' Mr Lai said. 'However, some hesitate when going to China for work; some even have refused the opportunity to work in China. 'Nowadays, the mainland is completely different,' he said, adding that many international firms had stopped giving hardship allowances to their expatriates in the mainland. 'Not only that, you need to understand the difference between the northern people and the southern people,' Mr Lee said. 'China is huge, and each province has its own set of challenges and differences.' But Hong Kong students still had an advantage, Mr Iu said. 'Hong Kong is in touch with the information flow around the world, creating an international environment which is information-rich,' he said. 'This allows Hong Kong accountants to have a global vision.' Mr Lee said the mainland needed 'specialist' accountants. 'They can get 'normal' accountants locally,' he said. Mr Lai said that accountants who were specialists in restructuring were in demand. 'The entire country is going through major restructuring, and there is a need for restructuring specialists,' he added. 'Also, state-owned enterprises are being turned into private institutions and they need a lot of restructuring advisers.' The Business Forum 2004 heralded the beginning of the 11th Accounting Week, an annual event organised by the Accounting Students' Society for its members. The first Accounting Week was launched in 1994.