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Enter the dragon - cautiously

With anaemic forecasts and uncertainties continuing to afflict much of the world economy, attention is focused more than ever on what Asia - and specifically, China - can do to drive trade and offer markets for potential growth.

This, inevitably, is creating a new set of pressures for companies in Hong Kong and the mainland. They are finding themselves at the sharp end, often having to deal with unrealistic expectations at home and overseas, as employees and international partners somehow assume that the downturn has had only minimal impact.

"These are confusing times for business leaders," says Christine Raynaud, chief executive of recruitment specialist The MRI China Group. "China demand is still seen as the panacea for Asian and Western multinationals, but within the mainland, the view is much more cautious." 

To illustrate, Raynaud refers to findings from the firm's annual talent environment index. For this, more than 5,500 mid- to senior-level managers answered questions in an online survey conducted late last year. Respondents spanned a wide range of industries and locations in Greater China, Singapore, Europe and North America. 

The results show a marked "disconnection" between executives in China and those elsewhere. For example, replies from Asia and other parts of the world are generally optimistic about prospects for the mainland economy - with respective figures of 50 per cent and 60 per cent positive. However, the feedback from major cities in China tells a contrasting story. There, only 42 per cent reported an overall positive outlook, with the more senior managers found to be even less optimistic (at 38.5 per cent) that those in mid-ranking positions (43 per cent).

"The difference is quite striking," Raynaud says. "We see a lot of [external] hope and expectations put on what the China market will be able to deliver in the coming year. But within the mainland, things are relatively more cautious. There will certainly be some conversations about business targets, as viewed from outside, and what is genuinely feasible."

The survey input from mainland-based senior executives is taken to show that stability, rather than change and expansion, is becoming a priority. This message, though, may not yet have filtered down to every level of the work force. If anything, in the coming months, the job market for professionals in China looks set to be even more vibrant than in 2011.

Among individual workers, the impetus to change jobs and careers remains strong, with 33 per cent of mainland respondents planning a move, compared with 24 per cent in the corresponding survey last year.

But there are early signs of a new mood taking hold. More top managers in China now aim to stay put in their current roles for the next 12 months - 27 per cent this year as opposed to 9 per cent last year - suggesting a greater sense of caution as they come to terms with new realities and more moderate prospects.

That seems sure to translate into a rethink of hiring, retention and compensation policies for different grades. Overall salary and compensation levels may not be as robust as they have been.

And while China should continue as an engine for job creation, candidates may find it tougher to hop straight from one good position to the next.

"I want to be optimistic from the talent management perspective," Raynaud says. "But employers will have to balance the challenges of managing their business in a period of softer growth. A more difficult environment will force them to focus on other dimensions - not just pay - and use a wider range of criteria to attract and retain employees. For people in human resources, that is an exciting proposition, but there will be increased pressure on business leaders to deliver in China."