Leadership: India Wins One Over China

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April 8, 2014: The recent appointment of an Indian born executive to run Microsoft Corporation caused quite a stir in China. That’s because there are more Indians running major American corporations than there are Chinese. Nationalism and ethnocentrism (“we are better than you”) are big in China these days, in part because that sort of thing has become official government policy.

The Microsoft appointment promptly led to the emergence of some official, and unofficial, explanations for this shocking imbalance. The first culprit, and one everyone could agree on, was that there are far more Indian managers and executives spoke English. India is united, at least at the top (as in all college graduates and most senior officials) because everyone speaks English. True, it’s a unique South Asian dialect (or dialects) but Indians also know how to speak “proper” (as heard on Indian radio and TV) English and that version is as comprehensible as similar versions in all English speaking countries. This is the version senior managers in corporations tend to use most of the time. Only about ten percent of Chinese college grads know any English and don’t speak it nearly as well as their Indian counterparts.

More pragmatic reasons for more Indian managers making their fortune in the United States (and the West in general) is that there are more management opportunities in China these days and they pay about four times more than similar jobs in India. So more of the Chinese talent stays home.

There are also reasons that get less public discussions. This includes racism and loyalty. Both Indians and Chinese look “different” in the United States, but that’s a place where everyone is a minority and if you’re smart and can make yourself useful, the different looks suddenly becomes fashionable and an asset.

The loyalty issue is more sensitive. China does have a large-scale espionage program in which many ethnic Chinese outside China with any access to data or tech China could use are approached and asked to help out. If often starts, and ends, with nothing illegal, just relating what one had seen in a university or as the user of some new American tech. That can easily escalate into illegal and even treasonous conduct and on many occasions it does. A lot more Chinese than Indians have been prosecuted for this sort of banned behavior in America. One side effect is that it brings undeserved suspicion on the many Chinese who will not betray the United States.

A more mundane reason is that many large, international corporations prefer to keep their Chinese executives inside China and these executives don’t make a fuss about this. Keeping these managers in China is partly the result of their being so few English speaking top executives to begin with and Indian multinational executives being more interested in working at the head office in the West.  In addition to being in a better position to get a senior (if not the top) job, spending part of your career outside your home country gives you a more international and flexible outlook.

China sees this growing number of international senior executives as one area where the Indians are superior and are thrashing about trying to find a way to deal with the situation.

 


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