China is increasingly driving today’s global economy and reshaping the landscape of international business. As such, it’s the perfect internship destination for students, graduates, and young professionals eager to gain experience and showcase their boldness, adaptability, and global mindset to future employers.
Important Note: Paid Internships
When seeking an internship in China, it's important to make certain that your employer and/or provider is submitting you for the correct visa and work permit. Foreign interns in China need to have a "special business F visa" that specifically prohibits compensation. Be wary of any provider promising paid internships in China. For more information, these resources are very helpful: R&P Lawyers and China Briefing. However, some companies will provide stipends and additional non-monetary benefits such as: food, accommodation, transportation, travel insurance, etc.
Since the late 1970s, when China’s Communist government launched its policy of “reform and opening up,” the Chinese economy has been growing at a staggering rate, with the country now widely expected to overtake the United States by the middle of this century – or perhaps sooner.
Massive and ongoing modernization and development, huge amounts of foreign direct investment, and a potential market of more than 1.3 billion customers – an increasing number of whom can now afford comfortable, middle-class lifestyles – have made China fertile ground for every kind of business imaginable, and prospective interns have no shortage of companies or sectors to choose from.
While business, finance, and law continue to lead the pack among China interns, there are also ample opportunities in cutting-edge fields such as digital media and green technology. Below are some of the most popular choices for internships in China.
- Business: China’s phenomenal economic growth and vast markets have turned it into a leading hub of international business and trade, and most of the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies – a list that includes a growing number of Chinese firms – have extensive operations there. Interns will typically work either at a well-known multinational, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, or a local private company, doing anything from business development to competitor analysis and project pitches.
- Accounting and Finance: Interns in this field have the opportunity to learn about accounting and investment strategy in China and gain firsthand insight into how the country’s evolving financial industry impacts the rest of the world.
- Marketing: China has over a billion people, and their tastes, preferences, and expectations are changing as rapidly and dramatically as the country itself. Interns working at China-based marketing firms can conduct market research, work on exciting advertising and sales projects, and develop a sound knowledge of Chinese consumer behavior and of how to sell products to the world’s largest “emerging market.”
- Law: Despite being a member of the World Trade Organization, China still lacks a solid legal infrastructure and reliable enforcement mechanisms governing business and trade, and is especially notorious for its weak defense of intellectual property. Interns at international law firms can learn how these organizations help foreign companies deal with the complex legal issues involved in setting up and doing business in China.
- Digital Media: China has witnessed an explosion in popularity among social networking sites, with Chinese versions of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube taking the country’s increasingly web-savvy younger generation by storm. China currently has more Internet users than the entire population of the United States, and digital media interns can find out how pioneering tech firms are engaging with, and serving the needs of this massive online constituency.
- Hospitality Tourism and Travel: China’s prosperity has led to the rise of an ever-widening middle class that can afford to travel around the country and around the world. An internship in the tourism and hospitality sector provides an opportunity to learn how name-brand hotels and enterprising travel companies are catering to what will soon be the world’s largest outbound tourism market.
- Green Tech: The flip side of China’s rapid industrialization and economic development has been pollution on a massive scale. To its credit, the Chinese government has begun to invest heavily in renewable energy and in creating strategies for sustainable development. Interns in this new sector have the chance to take part in cutting-edge research and see how the world’s biggest polluter is aiming to become a global leader in environmental responsibility and stewardship.
Planning Your Trip
When and Where to Look for an Internship:
While it’s possible to arrange an internship entirely on your own, the logistics are complicated, and most businesses are unlikely to take a chance on a candidate they’ve never met unless he or she can be vouched for by a reputable agency.
For this reason, it’s best to secure your internship in China through a placement company, which will handle the visa process, find a suitable internship, and handle all of the legal paperwork for you. Your placement company should also provide airport pickup and accommodation. Most also offer Chinese language courses, either as part of their program package or as an optional “extra.”
Placement companies charge varying fees for their programs; shop around and do your research to find out which one is best for you. Especially if you’re new to China, you’ll want a program that provides full and ongoing support for the duration of your stay, so you can focus on getting the most out of your internship.
Internships in China are generally available year-round, though it’s best to avoid the Chinese New Year holiday period (sometime between late January and the middle of February; the exact dates, corresponding to the lunar calendar, change every year) as offices are usually closed or understaffed and no official business is done. Every internship placement program is different, but as a general rule you should try to apply at least two or three months in advance to increase your chances of being placed in a sector or company of your choosing.
The vast majority of China internships are to be found in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which are increasingly internationalized and host a wide variety of companies in industries ranging from business and finance to media and marketing. However, there are also internship opportunities in more rural parts of China, especially for those who are interested in working for NGOs, charities, and social welfare organizations.
Visas for Interning in China:
Most interns come to China on an “F Visa,” or business visa, which allows you to stay in the country for up to six months. The visa fee for American citizens is US $130, and you will need to provide: 1) a completed application form with photo; 2) a valid passport with at least six months remaining on it; and 3) an official invitation letter from your host company in China. Your internship placement company should assist you in obtaining your visa, and the cost should be included in the overall program fee. For more information on China visas, go to VISA HQ
Cost of Living in China:
Most China internships take place in big, international cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where the standard and cost of living is significantly higher than in the rest of the country. How much you spend will depend on where and how often you go out and how “Western” you choose to be during your stay. For example, Chinese restaurants, even upscale ones, are significantly cheaper than their Western counterparts - a full meal with multiple dishes can easily be had for under US $10. Frequenting expat-oriented bars, clubs, and restaurants, on the other hand, will drive up your expenses considerably. Most interns opt for a mixed Western and Chinese lifestyle, for which 3,000-5,000 renminbi a month (about US $500-800) should be more than adequate.
Work Culture in China:
As China becomes more fully integrated into the global economy, the lines separating Western and Chinese office culture are gradually becoming more blurred, especially in top-tier "global cities" like Shanghai. That said, traditional Chinese business culture is still pervasive, and as an intern there are a few key issues of which you’ll need to be aware:
- Mianzi, or “face”: Respect is all-important in Chinese culture, which attaches great importance to matters of personal standing and reputation or “face.” Be courteous at all times, avoid sensitive or controversial topics when speaking with your Chinese colleagues or supervisor, and don’t do anything that might be perceived as making someone look bad in front of others. This doesn’t mean that you need to be dishonest, but it does require a certain amount of finesse. For instance, if you disagree with your colleague’s idea at a meeting, rather than saying so bluntly, couch your dissent in polite terms: “That’s one approach that could work. Another idea may be to…” It may seem like nitpicking, but ensuring that everyone feels respected will pay off in the long term.
- Hierarchy: Chinese workers are expected to show a certain amount of deference to senior colleagues and superiors. In contrast to Western companies, which tend to be more egalitarian, in Chinese companies the leader is expected to have all the answers, and it’s considered bad form to openly criticize or disagree with one’s boss. If you have something that you feel strongly about, it’s best to talk about it privately with your supervisor rather than venting aloud with your colleagues.
- The language barrier: For the vast majority of internships in China, knowledge of Chinese is not required. However, you’ll quickly find that knowing even a handful of basic Chinese words and phrases will make your life much easier, both inside and outside the office. Most internship programs also offer some kind of Chinese study component – take advantage of these, or at a minimum, carry a good phrasebook!
- Guanxi – networking: Chinese culture is built around personal relationships, and Chinese businesspeople tend to place much greater weight on ties of family or friendship than do their Western counterparts. Taking the time to get to know your Chinese colleagues better – at lunch, on weekend outings, or at the immensely popular KTV (karaoke) clubs – will help you fit in and have a more meaningful experience, while also building your network in China should you decide to stay on after your internship.
Once in China it is illegal to be employed by anyone other than your host company, and while it’s certainly possible to find extra work on the side (the most popular jobs are teaching English, copy-editing, and translating), the Chinese government has recently been cracking down on visa infractions by foreigners. Surprise workplace inspections are not uncommon, especially in the big cities. To ensure that your time in China goes smoothly, observe the law and make sure you have your supporting documents with you at all times.