Outsiders tend to regard China as a paragon of export-led growth, quietly beefing up its economic weight by supplying Western customers with cheap consumer goodies. However, as the global economic dynamics change, what commands the world's attention is the footprint of outbound mainland investment.
Just last month, China's largest entertainment conglomerate - Dalian Wanda Group - agreed to buy US cinema chain AMC Entertainment Holdings for US$2.6 billion (HK$20.28 billion), including debt. The deal is reportedly the biggest buyout of a US company by a mainland firm.
The tide has already been in motion for a while, only to be reinforced by the credit crunch that engulfed the West in 2008. According to data tracker Dealogic, the value of China's outbound merger and acquisition deals in 2008 totaled US$50.3 billion, double that of 2007 and marking well over a fivefold increase from US$9.6 billion in 2005.
The trend has gained momentum. Data from accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers shows a total of 99 outbound deals were announced during the first half of 2010, up 50 percent from a year earlier.
Mainland firms, especially well- positioned state-owned enterprises, are clearly marching out onto the global stage, snapping up assets or setting up facilities in hitherto untapped markets.
However, one hurdle stands in the way of all-out success for businesses. And it is the globally tuned skills of their executives, or rather the lack of them.
"China is certainly pursuing international business opportunities, but there is a shortage of globally experienced people who can deal with China's globalization," says Janet De Silva, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business Asia.
"There is a strong need for people who can operate internationally."
Consultant McKinsey & Company says China will need more than 75,000 globally capable business leaders by 2020 to support its worldwide expansion.
Not only are big resource players such as China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec, taking the lead in the worldwide asset-buying spree, but so are private businesses involved in manufacturing, such as the automotive sector.
De Silva said that success in China does not mean success in other markets, since unfamiliarity with local approaches, including relations with the government, media and labor unions, could pose fatal challenges. A case in point is mainland telecoms giant Huawei. It repeatedly encountered botched deals in North America amid suspicions that Beijing and its military had their fingers in Huawei's business.
Also, the marriage between Lenovo and US giant IBM - though cited as a model of overseas ventures by mainland firms - underwent a strained and stressful integration period long after the toasts were history.
Even though each deal is unique and each market brings its own headaches, corporate executives can equip themselves by developing core skills that can amount to a "panacea" in a way.
"By working in different markets myself, I firmly believe that an executive can bring core skills that are transferable and adaptable to any market," says De Silva, who has more than 10 years of experience as a chief executive in Hong Kong and the mainland.
From 2000 to 2007, she was CEO of Canadian insurer Sun Life Financial's Hong Kong business and then its mainland joint venture.
In 2007, she co-founded Retail China, a company that works with international brands in operating their retail stores and managing mainland franchisees.
"It is a logical step-by-step problem- solving skill, a framework for executives to make decisions," says De Silva, a graduate of Ivey's executive MBA program.
She attributes her business acumen to the vital skills learned from the case- study method the school is renowned for. Ivey entered the mainland in the 1980s and has since worked with many companies on executive training programs centered on real-life cases.
De Silva thinks mainland executives have excellent academic backgrounds and are seasoned in the local market - it is the lack of exposure to other markets that weighs on the growth of their companies.
She stresses that communication is vital when investing outside the home market, since lack of it may stir local hostility. In the early days of overseas moves by mainland firms, bungled communication strategies, or no strategy at all, cost them big. A deep understanding of legal practices in other markets is also imperative.
To tackle this, the school has just started cooperating on a business program with Beijing-based China University of Political Science and Law. The program aims to provide mainland executives with real-world cases on the legal front in international business.
"The concept is new and unique in China. Our goal is to meet China's leadership development needs by cultivating people who understand the structure of international legal rules in a practical context," says CUPL business school dean Sun Xuanzhong.
De Silva adds: "It is difficult to do business internationally, because there is no government support to secure certain contracts.
"To compete in an open market, China will need people with an international perspective."