HONG KONG-Faced with an increasing shortage in top-flight management talent and thousands of ailing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to restructure, the Chinese authorities have advertised a number of top jobs including four senior positions open to foreign applicants.

"China Shipping (Group) requires one deputy general manager to assist the chief executive in managing the international shipping business of the company," ran one recently posted job advertisement which would seem unexceptional but for one sentence at the bottom of the list of job requirements: "No restriction on nationality."

In an advertisement flagged in a red pop-up window on its Web site, the cabinet-level State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) said it was seeking deputy general managers and chief accountants at 22 SOEs formerly administered directly by central government.

Of the positions advertised, four were available "with no restriction on nationality," said the announcement, which was dated June 28 and also prominently displayed on some individual company Web sites. The remainder specified citizenship of the People's Republic of China.

Apart from China Shipping, shipping group China Chengtong and China Metallurgy Construction Group were also looking for deputy general managers of any nationality. China Coal was in search of a chief accountant.

The move comes at a crucial time for China as it balances a widening gap between rich and poor against its commitments to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which for some people recall the humiliating concessions made to foreign companies and powers during the first half of the 20th century.

But it is widely accepted among Chinese economists and policy-makers that the country's fledgling corporate culture, which has spawned official corruption and shady dealings on a massive scale, must transform itself or die.

"Experienced in capital management," was a buzzword common to all four ads, suggesting that a foreign national might bring international experience and operating procedures to the role, if hired.

Beijing has set up a special agency, SASAC, to act as government shareholder and carrying restructuring of 195 major centrally-owned enterprises, which also comprise some 12,000 subsidiary companies. Its job is to represent the interests of the state as--in most cases--majority shareholder in state-owned enterprises.

A World Bank report commissioned by the State Council in December 2002 strongly recommended that the SASAC should employ professionals in the field rather than bureaucrats to promote a market-oriented culture in its role as shareholder. It said its sole aim should be to maximize returns on the state's holdings in SOEs.

But China has a limited pool of professional managers who are outside the web of crony capitalism at every level of Chinese enterprise and government.

Foreign managers may be perceived to be less persuaded by non-business arguments in their decision-making.

Managers of China's SOEs have exercised almost total discretion over the use of state assets until now, resulting in a leaching away of public assets and funds which is thought to amount to billions of U.S. dollars a year.

The bonanza atmosphere caused by the listing of major SOEs on stockmarkets within China and overseas in recent years has boosted the widespread pilfering of state assets, as well as illegal transfers to beef up the balance sheets of companies preparing for listing. #####


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