Bridging a Cultural Divide

What Arizona State University has learned from establishing a Mandarin-language DBA program in Shanghai—and how it’s pivoting in the face of the pandemic.
ASU Shanghai DBA 2017 graduating class

The 2017 graduating class of ASU's DBA program in Shanghai. Amy Hillman, dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business, sits in the front row, fourth from left.


AS CHINA'S MARKET continues to open and Chinese firms continue to expand globally, business leaders there are eager to learn more about Western finance and management. The W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe established its doctorate of business administration (DBA) program in Shanghai, China’s finance capital, to help fill the gap for both. Now in its eighth year at the W.P. Carey School, the program enrolls 30 to 35 Chinese students a year. The majority of these students are from mainland China, but others come to the program from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other East Asian countries.

Because of the program’s targeted audience, it is conducted entirely in Mandarin and it is run in partnership with the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance (SAIF), a school affiliated with Shanghai Jiaotong University. SAIF not only promotes the DBA among senior executives, many of whom had not heard of a program like this before, but also helps ASU find qualified faculty to serve on doctoral thesis committees.

The DBA in global financial management grew out of a long-standing executive MBA program at ASU. The school created the program after graduates of the EMBA, also based in Shanghai and conducted in Mandarin, expressed an interest in obtaining more exposure to Western business education as they advanced their careers as practicing managers.

Students in the three-year DBA program attend intensive eight-hour sessions on weekends and spend their final year working closely with professors on thesis projects. Students who don’t live in Shanghai fly in from Beijing, Xinjiang, and other areas.


Students in the program represent a mix of entrepreneurs and senior executives at multinational companies and formerly state-owned enterprises. Although students in the DBA program have had years of business experience, many have not had much exposure to the Western approach to finance and management, which is more scientific and data-driven than it is in China. For that reason, these executives are very eager to learn a more systematic approach to the issues facing their organizations, explains David Zhu, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at ASU. Zhu has taught and served as a thesis advisor in the program for over four years.

While the leaders of Western companies have access to years of comprehensive studies that shine a light on the problems they’re trying to solve, Chinese business leaders lack such a body of knowledge, says Zhu. “In China, most make decisions based on their own experience instead of rigorous, evidence-based analysis. We emphasize causality and data to verify whether an idea is logical and valid or not.”

In addition to including each student’s paper in standard doctoral thesis databases, ASU and SAIF also encourage students to publish their research, and some have already achieved some success. However, the organizations where students work are often the primary beneficiaries of students’ findings. In addition, graduates of the program often return to serve as guest speakers, mentors, and interviewers in the admission process.

For example, one student developed an operation manual for his company based on his research. Another used one of her company’s major reform initiatives as an experiment and then applied her findings to guide further implementation of the reform. Yet another introduced a major product at his consulting firm. 

Many students choose thesis topics that explore the applicability of Western approaches to Chinese business environments. For example, one of Zhu’s students, the CEO of a large mutual fund company, chose to learn more about index funds, which were almost nonexistent in China at the time. “In China, actively managed funds are more popular. Information is not shared equally, and the belief is that those who have an information advantage will outperform others,” Zhu says.

The student collected data about both actively and passively managed investment funds in the U.S. and China for his thesis project. Once he discovered that, under certain conditions, passive funds can thrive and outperform active ones in China, he applied what he learned to guide practices at his own company.

Another student drew on his unusual background as the former chief editor of a national business publication. He had left his position to launch a social media platform, for which he interviewed top finance executives in China. As the popularity of his platform grew, he began to collaborate with investors, financial institutions, and research organizations.


He also had an enthusiasm for social responsibility. By the time he landed in the DBA program, he had many collaborators who shared his passion for social responsibility and who were willing to help him with his research. For his thesis project, he used Western research techniques to create an index that measures a company’s long-term performance in social responsibility, not just profit. In November 2019, one of his collaborators launched a fund based on the index.

Of course, several students in the eighth and current cohort have focused their theses on the pandemic. So far, they are exploring topics such as the impact of corporate social responsibility on financial performance during and after COVID-19 and the reasons why some export-oriented firms have adapted better than others to the pandemic.


The program is staffed by 16 Mandarin-speaking faculty members—eight from ASU and 8 from SAIF—as well as other personnel from the institute. The university occasionally brings in outside professors who teach in ASU’s executive MBA program to fill any gaps in expertise.

For the few faculty members who do not speak Mandarin, the program supplies simultaneous interpreters. These include two translators who used to work for the United Nations. These professors typically send transcripts of their planned discussions to their translators before class to reduce the challenge.

The school seeks out translators who specialize in the content area, such as finance or management, and Zhu notes that the simultaneous translations have gone smoothly overall. However, he adds, “translations do slow down the pace of communication in the classroom and require patience and understanding from both students and faculty.”

The school faces a larger challenge when it comes to finding Mandarin speakers to serve on three-member thesis committees. These advisors hold frequent, detailed discussions with students about their work, and it’s not easy to find Mandarin-speaking experts with that level of availability. The program has managed to fill these roles by flying in professors from ASU and other schools for weekends; at other times, these educators communicate with their advisees through email and video chat.


Though most of the program’s graduates apply their newly acquired business knowledge to Chinese enterprises, they are also interested in opportunities outside of China, says Zhu. Students can opt to complete practicums in the U.S. and Europe, where they can visit businesses and question executives about their operations. Students have a wide choice of companies they can choose to visit, ranging from investment banks in New York to businesses in San Francisco, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.

These interactions provide students with insights into sectors that have yet to take hold in China. For instance, China’s population is aging, but the country does not have a robust network of senior living facilities. One cohort of students learned firsthand how those facilities work in the West.

Some candidates have formed partnerships with Western companies as a result of the connections they have made. Others use the opportunity to start new business ventures of their own, including joint ventures with Western firms and even acquisitions of corporate assets.

For other Chinese students, having the opportunity to study Western business theory is an end in itself. That was the case for Youming Ye, who received his DBA in 2016. He reached that milestone as he was entering the waning years of his career as a private equity manager, 24 years after getting an MBA at ASU’s U.S. campus.

“When I was younger, it was always in the back of my mind to get that next level of intellectual training. For many different reasons, I didn’t pursue it, but the dream was always there,” says Ye. “It was ingrained in us when we were young—education is something you pursue whenever possible.”


By earning his DBA, he was better able to see the logic behind procedures he had followed throughout his career. “In the real world, you do things because everyone does them that way; you don’t question why,” he says. “Hearing the professors, you relate it to what you do and think, ‘Oh, this is why we do that.’”

He emphasizes that it is important for younger students to examine events such as the 2008 financial crisis, and the solutions that helped end it, through the lens of data. “If China opens up its financial infrastructure,” says Ye, these students “will know what has to be done to avoid pitfalls.”


Early in the program’s history, students heard about the offering primarily through word of mouth. Today, SAIF is primarily responsible for promoting the program by introducing it to prospective students at its events and across its network.

This spring, the school postponed three courses until the fall due to travel restrictions enforced during the pandemic, and it began conducting interviews for its next cohort online. Its European international practicum experience, scheduled for October, was also canceled. However, most courses offered by SAIF faculty were delivered as scheduled.

Since May, SAIF faculty have been teaching students face-to-face. Because W.P. Carey faculty will not be able to teach in China due to travel restrictions, they began teaching students over Zoom in August, and they hope to continue doing so if the students find it acceptable, Zhu explains.

“If the students strongly prefer a traditional learning experience, we will either have to find substitute professors in China, which can be very difficult, or change the schedule of their study program,” he says. Such a change might involve offering some seminars earlier to replace those taught by W.P. Carey faculty or offering them at a later time.

However, Zhu and his fellow faculty have viewed changes brought about by COVID-19 as an opportunity to strengthen the DBA program. During the pandemic, they have offered students a series of extracurricular webinars in which influential thinkers and executives have spoken about the pandemic from different angles. In addition, each student cohort takes part in a group on the communication app WeChat for social interactions.

Now that social life in China has largely returned to normal—with masks no longer required in classrooms or other public spaces—students can once again meet face-to-face. The government requires every student to report their health status to SAIF faculty daily, take precautions such as hand washing, and stay home if they show symptoms of the virus.

The program will continue to adapt, says Amy Hillman, dean of the W.P. Carey School, but its primary objective will stay the same: to enhance Chinese executives’ knowledge of the similarities, differences, and interactions between businesses in China and those in the West. “In the end,” she adds, “these students realize that even though governments around the world are affected by trade wars or other hot-button issues, individual businesspeople are simply trying to do the best they can for their stakeholders, families, and communities.”