Chinese Language Requirements, the HSK, and Senior Positions in China

Until very recently, Chinese language qualifications were not considered a deal-breaker for senior positions in China. For the most part, US and European employers assumed that a person of Chinese extraction had some degree of fluency in Chinese, and could communicate with other Chinese in China.

This all changed when Goldman Sach’s proposed appointment for China co-head, Richard Ong, was disqualified from his proposed position because he failed to pass the language requirements for the position which were passed by the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Ong was a Malaysian Chinese who had been mostly educated in English in the west.

The test which Ong failed to pass was the HSK or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi. The test is given in three levels: basic, intermediate and advanced. The most basic level of Chinese language fluency is level 1; the most advanced is level 11. Those who reach level 11 Chinese language fluency are deemed to be able to work in a Chinese-language work environment. The HSK is the only government-sanctioned test given to non-Chinese whose results are recognized by the Chinese government.

HSK Chinese Language Proficiency Test

Previously, the HSK was considered important only for those who were interested in the Chinese language for research and academic purposes; now, it is quickly evolving into an important job requirement qualification for those who want to work in China.

The test information and registration website includes full information about the process and tests, with test dates and places. Registration for the tests can be done online, as well as payment. All the candidate then needs to do is print out his form and photo, and present himself on the date of the test.

Test preparation books and materials are widely available in foreign-language bookstores in China, as well as in online stores.

As China becomes more important and influential on the international business scene, the need for senior executives who are fluent in written, spoken and in reading Chinese will become more important. Now, because of CBRC regulations, the sectors most affected are the sensitive financial sector; it is likely that as western companies become educated about the difference between being ethnically Chinese and fluent in Mandarin, they will ask for HSK test scores to get a handle on the Chinese language fluency of their staff and management, and prospective candidates. It is likely that it will soon evolve into a requirement for those in marketing in China, and in operations. Already, among executive search firms, there is a serious shortage of senior-level staff and management positions where candidates with Chinese-language fluency and overseas work experience are sought. For those who are serious about working in China, it would be wise to take the HSK and have their scores ready for their meeting with the human resources department.

Among China consultants, the HSK has already become a hot topic for discussion.

For those who are interested in learning more from others, and in sharing their knowledge, there is a discussion group for the HSK on Facebook.

12 Responses to “Chinese Language Requirements, the HSK, and Senior Positions in China”

  1. Comment says:

    In some professions, it makes just as much sense to require fluency in English, perhaps. There was a case where pilots from China were criticized for their failure to understand control tower commands in English. Communication is a serious issue.

  2. Daniel says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article poetry, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  3. Kaiser says:

    I’ve lived in fear of the HSK for years, and fortunately have never had to take it. I can read just fine–if slowly–but ask me to actually write without the aid of a computer and I’m totally helpless. Time for a tutor?

  4. Jeremy says:

    I don’t see that writing with a pen or pencil is at all necessary for employment. ANY modern job requires the use of a computer. if you can type your sentiments out, then you can “write”. I’ve never taken the HSK before, but I’m guessing there’s a written portion, which for academics, makes sense, but for business/employment qualifications, seems completely outdated.

  5. Alex says:

    The HSK is very biased towards reading and writing (with a pen/pencil), comprehension and grammar. There is a small section on listening and no speaking. That said, the organisers of the HSK are looking into/trialing alternative exams, such as those with a business focus and/or speaking focus.

    While “Those who reach level 11 Chinese language fluency are deemed to be able to work in a Chinese-language work environment” level 11 is quite a lot more than is needed. Level 4 is sufficient to enter most universities to study a science related major, level 6/7 to study an arts major. To work in a business environment, level 11 is overkill (indeed many educated Chinese professionals would find this a challenge); level 6 + business terminology should be sufficient.

  6. Jean-Marie says:

    Actually, the exam that tripped up Ong is not the HSK, but an exam specifically devised for the banking sector (???????????). In essence, it is a test of banking knowledge (in Chinese), administered by the Securities Association of China.

  7. Jean-Marie says:

    Actually, the exam that tripped up Ong is not the HSK, but an exam specifically devised for the banking sector (“Qualification Examination of Personnel Engaged in the Securities Industry”). It is a test of banking knowledge (in Chinese), administered by the Securities Association of China.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Alex is absolutely right. An 11 gives you an immediate qualification as an intermediate translator from the Chinese government.

    A 9 is what you need to be a graduate student doing graduate level work at a Chinese University (and graduate level work is much more linguistically challenging than business)

    A 6 is the qualification needed to study any major at a Chinese University in Chinese.

    A 4 is the qualification for some sciences and other related majors.

    Let me put it another way – I & a friend had taken 10 semesters of Chinese together, and the 5th & 6th semesters were already called ‘advanced Chinese’.
    After 10 semesters of Chinese (and having lived in China for a full year), we tested a 6 and 4 respectively. The HSK is a hard-core test, to put it lightly.

    An 11 for a business job is a little overkill.

  9. James G says:

    This seems to be a bit of protectionism via linguistics, in that (as other posters have mentioned) an 11 is overkill, especially in an exam so heavily weighted towards writing. I think the Chinese govt would like to, as much as possible, ensure that native Chinese fill these upper level positions, even if they aren’t employed by mainland firms.

    Ridiculous really, and likely to anger and befuddle people who have sway outside the mainland. Interesting that the govt allows “exemptions” which makes it sound like they might be given to cherry pick who they want and don’t want, apparently Ong was part of the former group.

    This sounds like the sort of thing that might more likely exist in Korea, not China.

  10. Andrrew says:


    I was thinking the same thing…

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