Clamoring for a slice of China’s pie“My daughter, who will be a senior in high school next year, wants to study Chinese traditional medicine,” says Choi Hee-jin, 43. “I’m looking for a good traditional medical school to send her to in China.” Lee Jung-Soon, 40, who says her son wants to pursue a career specializing in trade with China, is looking for a language program for her son. These mothers are not alone. A recent “Study in China” fair held at the Seoul Finance Center attracted more than 300 parents and students who are considering studying in China.
According to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, South Koreans make up more than one-third of the 62,000 foreign students enrolled in China’s higher education system. Japanese students, who had been the majority among foreign students at Chinese colleges and universities, are now outnumbered by their Korean counterparts.
Many Koreans, believing that their nation’s long-term economic fortunes depend on being able to sell to the Chinese market, are keen to get in early. Government officials say about 150,000 South Koreans attend short-term language courses in China each year, and that number is expected to grow for years to come.
The importance of the Chinese market was underestimated by many Koreans just a few years ago, in part because of Korea’s special relationship with the United States. But in the last decade that has started to change, as Korean firms have begun to recognize their overdependence on the U.S. market. Korean corporations have invested heavily in production facilities in China since the two countries opened diplomatic ties in 1992. In 2002, Korea recorded a trade surplus with China of $6.35 billion. This year, as of June 20, Korea’s surplus was just over $4 billion.
Yang Pyeong-sub, a Northeast Asia researcher at the Korea International Trade Association, says, “ Korean conglomerates, such as Samsung, LG and SK, are diving into the Chinese market to secure a foothold there. Their dependence on the Chinese market will only increase.”
SK Corp. has been one of the biggest spenders. By the end of this year, the company says it will have invested 44 billion won ($38 million) in its Chinese subsidiaries.
As Korean firms make inroads into the Chinese market, Koreans who speak Chinese will be in demand. And the entry of Chinese companies into the Korean market will likely mean even greater job opportunities in the future for those with the language skills.
Mr. Yang predicts that China will follow the same path that Korea took two decades ago, moving from the role of “sweatshop to the world” to building quality products with Chinese brand names. “Ten years from now, the ‘Made in China’ label will start to garner a certain cachet in industries like electronics, computers and automobiles,” he says. China , he predicts, will start to shed its image as a producer of cheap goods. The entry of Korean companies into the Chinese market is the issue of today, Mr. Yang says; the penetration of Chinese companies into the Korean market will be the issue of tomorrow.
Experts suggest that students who are planning to study in China should consider which fields China will become internationally competitive in and which Chinese corporations have the potential to become multinational corporations.
Han Hong-suk, a professor of economics at Kwangwoon University in Seoul, asks his students not to study the Chinese language just to do business with China. In the near future, as economic exchange between Korea and China becomes more active, students should be equipped to do business with the Chinese in Korea or to be able to work at firms importing goods from China.
“A foreign language is nothing but one tool in your life,” says Mr. Han, who is Chinese. “Without developing skills in other areas, you cannot compete. You should always be aware of the fact that there are not only 2 million Korean-Chinese who have an excellent command of both languages, but also thousands of Chinese who graduate from Chinese universities with degrees in the Korean language.”
The professor considers the tourism industry a good prospective field for Korean students who can speak Chinese. As the Chinese economy grows, Mr. Han says, so will the discretionary income available to Chinese consumers. One increasingly popular expenditure for Chinese families is overseas vacations, and South Korea, along with a number of Southeast Asian countries, is one of their favorite destinations.
Studying in China, Mr. Han says, can lead to real success only if it helps Koreans find ways of capturing the tastes of the 1.3 billion Chinese and enticing them to buy Korean products. If that can happen, he says, Korea’s domestic economy will benefit for decades to come as it grows alongside China’s increasingly powerful economy.
by Park Sang-won
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