The term China Hand originally referred to 19th-century merchants in the treaty ports of China, but evolved to reflect anyone with expert knowledge of the language, culture, and people of China. (Wikipedia)
Several of the posts on china/divide thus far have used the term “China Hand,” including mine, so I thought it would be useful to briefly discuss this. The above quote gives you the origins of the term, and it has filtered down to the present to generally refer to a foreigner who is a China expert.
Often the word “old” is used in conjunction with “China Hand” to denote someone who has many years on the China beat. The time factor seems to be significant when determining whether someone is worthy of the moniker. Usually those many years of expertise are developed “in country,” and your average China Hand has therefore been, or continues to be, a resident of China.
In addition to living over here, other significant factors include language skills, cultural familiarity, and some educational background related to Chinese history, literature, and politics.
OK, this is the part where I change the pace of this by saying that the whole China Hand thing is complete bullshit.
The modern concept of the China Hand is complete bullshit.
I’m glad I got that over with. Now why did I say it?
Look, back in the 19th Century or in the 1930s or 40s, the China Hand was a more specific label. Take a look at the old dudes in the top photo. These 20th Century American legends were U.S. State Department folks and academics. Even adding a few journalists to that group, you were still limited by a small number of people who professed an in-depth knowledge of China. Their expertise was mainly used to: 1) facilitate communication with contacts within China for research purposes (academic, government, news); and 2) be taken seriously by the American government. (Mostly because of the Cold War, the latter didn’t work out all that well, as it turns out.)
The more recent use of “China Hand” is a much broader concept roughly equivalent to “China expert,” but not necessarily limited to someone who has spent their entire professional career devoted to the study of China. So what exactly does “China expert” mean? Consider someone holding themselves out as an “American” expert. What would you hire that person to do? What skills would that person have?
I’m suggesting that “expert” is much too general, indeed useless, if we want to apply it outside of academia or government, and in fact as China has opened to the West and its economy has developed, general expertise has steadily declined in value as a standalone skill. Just ask your average expat fluent in Chinese (but with no other marketable skills) what sort of jobs are open to them these days. English teacher anyone? Fifteen years ago, that same guy would be working at a Joint Venture, maybe even in a management position.
Think about your average China consultants. When I came to China, they held themselves out to be “business consultants.” A China Hand consultant back then had one major job: hold the hand of the foreign investor, who had never been here and was scared shitless. The investor needed to be told how to exchange his business card, how to drink baijiu, and how to negotiate. These cultural and negotiation issues were central to the consultants’ added value, although the best practitioners had other relevant skills as well. These days consultants specialize in logistics, new media, marketing, HR, etc. They are likely to be experts in a particular industry in addition to being familiar with the language and culture.
My profession has seen a similar progression. The old time China Hand lawyer didn’t even work in China but in Hong Kong. After finally being allowed to work in this country, a lot of these guys were first and foremost Chinese language scholars; their abilities as lawyers were secondary. As time went on, both sets of skills became necessary to compete in the market. From that point onward, no one held themselves out as a “China lawyer,” but an expert in China-based foreign investment and cross-border transactions.
These days, being a generalist isn’t enough. Lawyers in China still do a great deal of FDI work, but they are now M&A, real estate, patent, or tax specialists. My practice focuses on technology and intellectual property. The market demands specialists, not general China Hands.
The value of cultural and language skills, without other useful business experience, has steadily declined over time. These days that Old China Hand is more likely to be getting blitzed at an aged expat bar, reminiscing about the good old days, than involved in the latest cross-border deal.
At the same time, some people with highly specialized, niche skills, in demand in today’s high-powered and diversified China economy, can even get by without living here, with poor language skills, and without much of a clue about anything — except their field of expertise.
The Old China Hand, once the bedrock of the expat community and the Western version of modern Chinese history, is fast becoming a faded memory of a group of people made obsolete by economic modernization. Have we reached the point when the term itself has ceased to be useful, or is it worth it for the nostalgia value alone?