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From Red Guard to MBA student -- how to get ahead in China

FIFTEEN years ago, Liu Zhongtian shouted denunciations of American imperialism and criticized ``capitalist roaders'' during his days as a Red Guard in Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. Today, he is enrolled in one of China's first MBA programs with an all-American curriculum, and he spends long hours studying such capitalist subjects as finance, marketing, and managerial economics.

``What we learn here more or less contradicts much that we learned before, but I think it is right. I think these economic theories can explain most of what happens in the world. It comes closer to explaining things than [the slogans of] Chairman Mao,'' Mr. Liu says in fluent English.

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The experiences of many of the students at the Dalian Institute of Technology reflect the incongruities of China in the 1980s and how different are students' lives today than during the years of radical social experiments in the 1960s.

Wan Yi, Liu's classmate, recalls a fifth-grade assignment in 1968 in which his teacher asked the class to write a composition titled ``To Study Is Useless.''

``I didn't agree with this title, so I wrote a different composition called `To Study Is Useful,'' Mr. Wan says, ``but my teacher told me I was wrong.''

Another student remembers the strange ways in which Mao's personality cult was promoted. ``My teacher told us that when we do something unselfish for others, we would hear Chairman Mao's voice. But one student in our school was bold enough to tell the teacher that he didn't hear Mao's voice at all. Neither did I.''

Today's MBA students are learning another lesson: Good management practices have little to do with politics or ideology.

``Good management is an art and must be practiced within one's own culture and environment,'' Pang Dian Ying, director of the Dalian Management School, counseled incoming students and staff recently.

That may be so, but the curriculum at the school, which is sponsored jointly by China and the United States, is all-American. The program was designed by the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the faculty comes from business schools and corporate offices from across the US.

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The 40 students in this year's MBA class are in their late 20s and 30s and have had at least five years of work experience. Most are married, six are members of the Communist Party, and four are women. They come from cities all over China.

Each has waged some personal struggle before gaining admission to one of the most prestigious and competitive graduate programs in China, though only a few are old enough to have taken an active part in the Cultural Revolution. They are among the most unabashed pioneers of China's modernization drive. They are openly committed to the ``art'' of adapting Western principles of economics and management to Chinese circumstances.

After six months of preparatory courses, the group already is touched by the upbeat, success ethic typical of business schools everywhere. This is all the more striking in a country where industrial managers often earn less than factory technicians, and everyone's pay is so low that it offers little incentive to work hard.

``I study for my wife, my children, and myself, and on the whole, for my country,'' says Wan Li. ``Of course, for the money too, but we don't expect to earn more than 200 or 300 yuan [$70 to $110] per month, at least for a while.''

The students were selected from among hundreds of candidates for a two-year program leading to a masters in business administration (in Chinese, the word business is omitted). They are on a fast track to leading positions in Chinese industry and government.

After a rigorous six-month prequalifying program and three semesters of MBA courses in this scenic port city, with all instruction in English, the students will take their last semester and receive their degrees in Buffalo. They will then serve an internship at an American corporation, before returning to their work units in China. Future enrollment will be about 50 students per year.

``China needs a large troop of managers,'' Zhang Yanning, vice-chairman of the State Economic Commission, told incoming students here recently. These managers need to learn to think more broadly and to develop a management strategy to meet the long-term needs of industry and government planning agencies, he said.

The state economic commission oversees 78 management institutes set up in the last several years and wants to graduate some 15,000 professionally trained managers annually.

But these schools have few qualified faculty and few Chinese-language course materials. Japan, Canada, West Germany, and the European Community have started their own management-training programs here recently.

The Dalian approach has been criticized by outsiders as being too American and therefore inappropriate to China's situation.

Staff members are aware of the criticism but emphasize they are teaching principles that can be adapted and applied anywhere. Besides, says Richard Lee, who administers the program for the US Department of Commerce, the Chinese want it that way.

``The Chinese told us they wanted the faculty to teach as they do in the States and not to mind the obvious differences between the situation in China today and that in the West,'' Mr. Lee says. ``They said, `Let us decide how to adapt what we are learning.' ''

The faculty has been doing just that, breaking the Chinese tradition of long class lectures with discussions of actual case studies from Chinese and American industry and conducting free-wheeling simulations of corporate decisionmaking.

``We're not pushing American ideas on them at all,'' says Phillip Smith, a Pittsburgh banker who is this year's dean of the senior executive program.

``We're saying to them, `This is what works in American management and business, you have to find out what will work for you in China,' '' he says.

The Dalian MBA program is part of one of the most successful projects in Chinese-American cooperation. It is an important, if limited, experiment in transferring badly needed managerial skills to a younger generation of leaders in industry and government. The management school is jointly sponsored by China's State Economic Commission and the United States Department of Commerce. It has an exceptionally modest budget of $2.1 million dollars over the next five years, provided mainly by the US.

Besides the MBA program, it includes a six- to eight-month study course for mid-level managers and a two-month course for ``senior executives'' (``high cadres'' in the Chinese translation).

The program's sponsors hope the entering MBA students will help lead China's new revolution in industrial management.

For most of this new group of students, their horizons have expanded since the late 1970s, when China's leaders became concerned with economic development rather than political struggle.

Asked to sum up the impact of the Cultural Revolution on his life and how he was able to make the transition from supporter of ultra-leftist ideas to future corporate leader, Liu Zhongtian had a ready answer.

``The Cultural Revolution taught us how to think in the wrong way, and then we learned how to think in the right way,'' he said.

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