Careers with Chinese Characteristics

What we can learn from the changing landscape of China-related jobs

Occupational Therapy

Has Horace Greeley’s famous injunction to young Americans in the 19th century—“Go West, young man”— been revised in the opposite direction in the 21st century? In January, a New York Times op-ed declared: “Go East, Young Man,” and many at Harvard seem to be responding.

Students at Harvard are studying Chinese, spending summers interning in Beijing and Shanghai, and taking coursework on related topics (for example, Michael J. Puett’s course on classical Chinese philosophy is currently the College’s third most popular class, with over 500 enrollees this fall). Everywhere we look, our politicians and our teachers are encouraging us to prepare for a future of engagement with China. In 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to send 100,000 American students to China.

The message couldn’t be clearer. But how do students who are listening to this advice and preparing for careers involving China think about their prospects?

15 years ago, the now-clichéd answer might have fallen relatively neatly into a “passion versus paycheck” binary. One cohort headed to China to work in financial services as foreign capital poured into the country in the 1990s and 2000s (what we could call the “paycheck” group). They often spoke little or no Chinese and had begun working on China late in life. Another group went to China to work at schools and nonprofits (the “passion” group)—experiences vividly described in, for example, writer Peter Hessler’s “River Town.” They often focused on language acquisition and immersive experience in life on the ground in China.

Undoubtedly, exceptions to these broad categories existed—but to a remarkable extent, as I interviewed students for this article, they discussed these two received cultural types as the framework for how they had initially thought about their career options in China. Nowadays, though, the students with whom I spoke told me that this old “passion versus paycheck” distinction is fading. Instead, China’s continued development and the growing interconnection between the United States and China are allowing Harvard students to consider new, high-impact career paths involving China.

Charles G. Gertler ’13 is part of this young generation of Mandarin-speaking Americans who are innovating new forms of professional engagement with China. Before starting at Harvard, he spent a gap year in China, where he worked as an English teacher and learned Mandarin. In college, he developed a strong interest in climate issues and energy policy in China, and he intends to make his career dealing with these challenges.

Last summer, Gertler worked at a state-owned clean energy firm, the China Three Gorges Corporation. As he considers jobs after college, he is excited about the range of consultancies and think tanks that are built on “cooperation between West and East” on climate issues. “The jobs that I’ve seen be open to me have been jobs with institutions that are both Chinese and American or European,” he said, such as the China Greentech Initiative, a “commercial collaborative platform focused on identifying, developing and promoting green technology solutions in China,” and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which has offices in the West and Beijing. These jobs simply do not fit in the “passion versus paycheck” binary.

Instead, Gertler and other students like him said that they think about their decisions from a number of different perspectives. Geography is one obvious factor. “I would rather stay close to home than move to China right now, but China is certainly still my main area of interest,” Gertler said. Other students with primary career interests in China told me that they are looking at jobs in Great Britain, Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia. The jobs that these students are pursuing will place them in locations outside of China but will allow them to work closely on impactful China-related issues.

A more ambiguous factor that many students also emphasized is a company’s national identity. As American students gain better Chinese language skills and a deeper understanding of China, it becomes newly possible to work at Chinese companies or at employers that, as Gertler said, are built around cooperation between China and the United States. Taking these factors together, it is easier to see the novel way that young Americans are thinking about careers engaging with China: to many young Americans, these careers offer exciting possibilities to work with colleagues from diverse national backgrounds in diverse geographies.

Some campus groups and University organizations are facilitating this evolution in thinking about careers in China. The Harvard China Fund is one example. HCF arranges summer internship experiences in Greater China for Harvard undergraduates. They offer a few jobs in finance and a few at NGOs, as well as a variety of options in media, agribusinesses, and healthcare, according to Assistant Director Jennifer Downing. The program has a remarkable reach, with 43 participants in the summer of 2012, and Harvard should continue to develop programs of this kind, including programs for post-college employment.

As interest in careers engaging with China continues to intensify, students, the University, and prospective employers will need to understand and respond to these newly available opportunities. As the dynamic country of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” continues to grow, we may soon find a wave of “careers with Chinese characteristics,” too.

Julian B. Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.