What makes expats respected in China

China: expatriate or local manager?

| Intercultural

Almost every leading German company already has a branch in the world's second largest economy. Greater China is booming and everyone wants to be part of it.

But who should take on management responsibility - an employee sent to the subsidiary or a local manager? There are pros and cons for both solutions.

The good news for HR managers in German companies with a branch in China is that there are enough young executives who would like to work in the People's Republic for a few years. According to a survey by the job placement portal www.sinojobs.de, 93 percent can imagine this. The bad news for this group of people is that the need for German skilled workers is no longer as high as it was a few years ago. Because the huge empire in the Far East is making a leap in quality. 1.2 million Chinese college graduates enter the labor market every year. In addition, there are more than 120,000 Chinese who have studied abroad.

Average of $ 129,500 for Western executives

Even if wages are increasing in China, their level is still significantly lower compared to the salaries paid in this country for management positions. According to surveys, a middle manager from western foreign countries earns about $ 129,500 annually, while a Chinese who has trained abroad only earns $ 81,800. In addition, local managers do not necessarily need intercultural training; they know values ​​and customs as well as the still complex structures and interdependencies between the state and the economy. However: The well-trained, but still young Chinese specialists may have difficulties to be accepted by local employees. “In China, seniority, ie the wisdom of age, plays a major role,” says Barbara Heyken, intercultural trainer and China expert at the Association of Foreign Employees (BDAE), which specializes in foreign assignments. In a younger team, however, a young German boss could definitely survive.

Facts and figures:
  • Round 3,700 German companies have settled in the People's Republic with an upward trend.
  • 15,800 German citizens already live and work in the Greater China region.
  • $ 81,800 A Chinese trained abroad earns annually (for comparison: his western counterpart receives an average of $ 129,500)

Patriarchal leadership style in China

The Chinese still maintain a patriarchal style of leadership, tend to be authoritarian and have a strong focus on hierarchies. Decisions by superiors are therefore not called into question - and certainly not publicly. “But the employees can also be sure that their boss will stand up for them if there are family problems, for example,” Heyken continues. What speaks in addition to lower wages from the point of view of cost savings, are also the lower social security contributions that have to be paid to the Chinese system. For example, the employer's contribution to health and social insurance for employees in Shanghai is only around 35 percent with a current income threshold of just over EUR 1,000 gross per month. For a German expatriate who works in China as part of a secondment or an exception agreement that reflects the German compulsory social insurance, companies continue to pay the local high ancillary wage costs. In addition, there are often extras such as flights to your home country, company cars or bonuses abroad.

Foreign skilled workers have to fill the gap

“In principle, a foreign employee only receives a work permit if the posting company can justify that the position cannot be filled by a local employee,” says Elisabeth Altmann, head of the BDAE's international advisory office. But the higher the qualification the job requires, the sooner a company can make credible that it needs the expertise of a specialist from its own ranks. Well-trained engineers, mechanical engineers, finance specialists and industrial engineers are still difficult to find in China. That is why many German companies that rely on this professional group would do well to deploy their own employees as expatriates in the Chinese branch. The familiarity with the company structures and the knowledge of the expectations that the parent company has of the foreign assignment speak in favor of it. The direct connection is a decisive criterion for a number of German companies active in China, because: "Of course you want the managers in the foreign branch to represent the interests of the parent company and, above all, to stand up for them," explains foreign expert Altmann.

But the success of a secondment is largely linked to optimal preparation. And it's not just about project knowledge and expertise. Because an expatriate who is not respected by the Chinese employees and who does not know how to solve intercultural conflicts will fail miserably on his mission. "Basically, German managers are very well received in China," says China specialist Heyken. “German executives have a good reputation, are known for their high quality and legal awareness, their efficiency and precision. In this respect, a German expat will initially not meet with rejection in his Chinese team. "

Avoid confrontation

If you want to assert yourself as a foreign manager and be successful, you have to master a few essential rules. For example: Avoid confrontation, because the Chinese use indirect communication to resolve conflicts. Germans would tend to address weaknesses directly, often even among colleagues - an absolute no-go in Chinese culture. The German view of not taking constructive criticism personally can simply not be transferred to the Chinese labor market. The most difficult balancing act that expatriates in management positions have to master is the one between respect and quality assurance. On the one hand, the Chinese appreciate clear messages and value leadership, on the other hand they value being included in decision-making processes and listening to their opinions as a sign of respect. On the other hand, they would never allow decision-making authority to be transferred to them within a subordinate position.

Honest feedback is rare

Another problem: “You will never get honest feedback with critical statements about your own leadership strength. That is considered impolite. ”Heyken emphasizes. Likewise, Chinese employees would never admit that they did not understand something. If you want to make sure that the employees have understood important facts, you should formulate your goals very precisely and repeat them several times. It can also be helpful to create instructions in writing by e-mail or, for larger projects, in the form of a manual (also with pictures, if you like). In some situations it is also worthwhile to run through processes in the form of an exercise in order to identify any uncertainties.

In order to survive as a foreign manager in the Far East, Mandarin is becoming more and more important. Basic knowledge is now a prerequisite; it is better to master the language so well that conversation is possible. It is questionable whether the majority of German companies can come up with managers who meet these requirements. Foreign managers should also be aware that they could have a longer working day in China than they are used to in Germany. The Chinese work a lot and can be reached around the clock - even after work.


Per local managerPro expatriate
  • Language, country and mentality knowledge
  • Comparatively lower labor costs
  • Lower social security contributions
  • Contacts in business and local authorities


  • Close ties to the parent company
  • In-depth knowledge of the project and the objectives
  • Appreciation of positive German characteristics (e.g. quality assurance, precision, discipline) of the Chinese
  • Trust in asserting corporate interests


Photo: fotolia © Bohanka

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