You’re a non-Chinese who has studied some Mandarin and is now totally inspired to get a super awesome IB job in China? That’s fantastic. Despite my sarcasm and what others may say, it is possible to get a job in investment banking in China as a non-Chinese with subpar Mandarin skills. I did it, and this is how I did it.
Things to know up front
Your best bet if you’re not a native Mandarin speaker is actually to go to Hong Kong or Singapore. Hong Kong naturally has a ton of China business and Singapore has more SE Asia, but both cities are jockeying with each other to be the financial center of Asia. But if you have your heart set on China, your target cities should be Beijing, Shanghai, and a little bit of Shenzhen. Beijing has a lot of IB presence because of the closeness between government and business in China. Shanghai is a more international, more financial city than Beijing. Go to Shanghai if you can- both cities are still backwards and corrupt, but Shanghai is much less so than Beijing.
It’s important to keep in mind that China doesn’t have the domestic M&A culture that the US does. Most of the activity here is related to financing rounds and public listings. Also there is also effectively no market for corporate debt.
“Your Mandarin sucks.”
As a non-native speaker trying to get a job/internship in China, having Mandarin ability shouldn’t be what you emphasize. Even if you have perfect Mandarin, you will still always be an outsider.
Your strong point should be your cross-cultural understanding and your flexibility. You can work both with both sides. Naturally the better your Mandarin, the more opportunities you will have. But try to position yourself as Mr. International; you understand how things work in China and you understand how things work outside China. The other foreigners can trust you because you’re not a sneaky Communist that will screw them at the first opportunity, and the Chinese side will listen to you because they have no idea how to navigate the business world outside China.
How to go about doing it
Although it can be done while living outside China, realistically you need to be here. You need a Chinese address on your resume to get people to pay attention to you. As far as I know you can still get a 12 month multiple-entry tourist to get you over here so you can hit the ground. Don’t find an apartment on your own. Live with a friend or a family. Even better, make friends with a Chinese person at your home university whose family might let you live with them for a month or two. The key here is flexibility; you don’t know which city or even where within a city you’re going to end up. There’s no point in locking yourself into an expensive long-term lease right away.
Unless you’re a native Mandarin speaker, don’t waste your time with the global full-service houses.
Focus your efforts on the small boutiques that have an international or cross-border interest. Check out the bios of the people that work there. Are there already any non-Chinese? If not, move on for two reasons: 1) if they wanted a non-Chinese they would have one already and 2) if they did hire you, there’s a good chance you might not do any real work and end up just being the junior token white guy.
Reach out the same way you would in the US: Linkedin, alumni directory, Google, etc.; but you want to be 100% focused on actually meeting the people, rather than just phone calls. Send cold emails not asking for a phone chat, but instead asking for a time to meet for coffee. Something along the lines of “I’m going to be in Shanghai and would like to pay you a courtesy visit. Might you be available for coffee after 2pm on next Tuesday or Wednesday?”
Throw any expectations about pay out the window. You have to be willing to work for a month or two for free. It not only gives the firm a chance to see if they like you, but also gives you a chance to figure out if you like the firm and how legitimate it is. Also once you do start getting paid, it won’t be anywhere close to what you would make working anywhere outside China, or even in Hong Kong.
Amount and type of work, as well as the number of hours are all completely variable. I once interned for a firm where everybody left the office at 5pm on the dot.
I’d be happy to expand on any points, or answer any questions in the comments.