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The biggest worry for Chinese firms in India isn’t the border dispute, it’s finding staff

From chefs to CEOs, there is growing demand for savvy young Chinese who can help to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers in India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2017, 9:48pm

The two-month border standoff between China and India is not a huge concern for the Chinese business community in India because few are expecting a full-fledged war between the two Asian giants.

The biggest worry for them is the chronic shortage of Chinese staff in India.

This can be seen most clearly in the case of two Chinese mobile phone companies in the southern city of Bangalore, known as Asia’s Silicon Valley, who engaged in a fierce contest to hire someone with highly prized skills: a Chinese chef.

The chef has been living in India for a few years and can speak basic English – a skill that makes him particularly in demand as it means he can run a kitchen independently.

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This scenario is just one example of a problem that is commonly faced by Chinese entrepreneurs in India – while their businesses are expanding, the talent pool of people with knowledge of both countries is limited.

Chinese chefs, for instance, are difficult to find in India. Most of them look to the United States or Europe if they want to work overseas, and few are willing to work in India – even if they’re offered double the salary they earn at home.

But as more Chinese firms set up branches in India, there is growing demand for Chinese chefs. An in-house Chinese chef is now said to be a big asset for any Chinese company in Bangalore, and a big drawcard for attracting and retaining Chinese staff who might be missing food from home.

In June, I visited a construction site on the outskirts of Bangalore. A Chinese property developer is building a 50-floor apartment block there which will be the city’s tallest residential tower.

The 27-year-old Chinese site manager, Xiong , showed me around the project and I was impressed by his local knowledge and professionalism.

As a graduate of the University of Hyderabad who has lived in India for the past eight years, Xiong is a perfect executive candidate for any Chinese company trying to expand in the country. Raised in China and educated in India, he was able to land an executive job at a young age. And his employer is counting on his local knowledge to overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers to doing business in India.

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The shortage of candidates like Xiong has become severe in recent years because of a huge decline in the number of Chinese students in India over the past decade – making young Chinese with India knowledge a rarity.

Liu Jinsong, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in India, told a conference in Delhi in April that China had a “communication deficit” with India – there were far more Indian students in China than the other way around – while India had a big trade deficit with China.

Liu warned that the problem must be addressed because it could lead to misinformation and mistrust.

“The number of Chinese students studying in India is below 3,000, while there are 30,000 Indian students studying in China,” Liu said.

For many Chinese, India is still close to the bottom of the list when they’re choosing where to study overseas.

Xiong told me there were about 200 Chinese students at the University of Hyderabad when he was there in 2008. “That number has dropped to less than 20 now,” he said.

In the past decade, with India emerging as an economic powerhouse and a huge market, Chinese students have been going elsewhere.

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Meanwhile, more South Korean students are heading to India. And they’re learning Chinese. Many go to Jawaharlal Nehru University, the top college in Delhi, as they try to kill two birds with one stone – building their knowledge of the world’s two game-changing countries by studying Chinese in India.

The absence of a global perspective in China’s official education curriculum has played a role in this situation. There is very little about India’s history, politics, economy or society in Chinese textbooks. Meanwhile, the latest developments in India are barely covered by China’s state media. When reports do appear, they tend to paint India as a dirty and backward country full of horrific stories.

The relatively small amount of trade and investment flowing between the world’s two most populous countries a decade ago has also put off young Chinese from looking to India.

Xiong told me he still remembers his early days in India, when he struggled to find even a summer internship. “Very few Chinese companies were operating in India ... 100 Chinese students might apply for one position, even though the salary was next to nothing,” he said.

But that situation is quickly changing. China is now India’s biggest trading partner. More importantly, Chinese businesses are rushing to invest in India – in 2011, China was the 35th biggest source of foreign direct investment in India but it was the 17th biggest in 2016.

It’s such a worry that young Chinese are ignoring India when the economic and security stakes are so high.

Hu Jianlong is an entrepreneur and a freelance writer based in Bangalore