Can management techniques developed in the capitalist United States be transplanted to a communist country like China?
Yes, no, maybe. There is no agreement, even among experts. But here in the rolling, green outskirts of Dalian, a unique experiment brings American business-school professors and management specialists each year to teach Chinese factory managers, middle-level government officials, and scholars.
The subjects, such as financial systems and control, science and technology management, and applied statistics and quality control, are typical of a graduate program in business administration or industrial management in the US.
The aim, as US Commerce Department official Richard Lee told Chinese students recently, ''is not to teach you how to manage Chinese industrial enterprise or scientific organization. Rather, we are here to introduce to you the concept and knowledge on which we have based our system of management in the US.''
The half-year program is administered by China's National Center for Industrial Science and Technology Development, under an agreement between the governments of China and the US. So pleased is the Chinese government with results obtained so far that it agreed last year to extend the original three- to five-year life of the program to a full five-year commitment, running from the program's inception in 1980 until the end of 1984.
Most of the funds for the program come from the Chinese government. But the US Department of Commerce has contributed about $175,000 a year. Several leading American companies have contributed items such as calculators, audiovisual equipment, and the loan of a computer and word processor.
The national center is on the campus of the Dalian Institute of Technology, whose vice-president, Fan Jielian, is concurrently director of the center. The teaching staff of Chinese and Americans is drawn from universities in both countries.
What do the students, selected by the State Economic Commission from enterprises and government offices throughout the country, expect to learn from their six months at the national center?
The following are comments from some of the 180 students attending this year's session:
''The most important question for us today is how to modernize our enterprises,'' said Li Mushi, an officer of the Tianjin turbine-manufacturing plant. ''We are a developing country, and the US is very advanced in industry, in management, in science and technology. I want to study the specific practices of American management - for instance, how to improve productivity, how to manage people, how to make plans, how to contact markets.''
Zhang Renshi, of the Shanghai knitwear factory, said, ''We should study and understand the thinking and practice of management in the US, so that we can adapt what is useful for us.'' Mr. Zhang was interested in the case-study method used by American professors. He wanted to study, through examples of successful and unsuccessful cases, how decisions were made.
The case-study method is one approach used by American professors here in their classes. Actual cases are compiled, not only from the experience of American firms, but from selected Chinese enterprises, with the State Economic Commission opening doors to make sure the joint American-Chinese team that wrote up the cases had access to all the information it needed.
The students seemed to have differing views of this method so typical of American business schools. Some, like Mr. Zhang, were looking forward to the case-study method's emphasis on specific examples. Others, especially those who came from universities, said they preferred more theory. ''It's because they're not used to it,'' said a Chinese professor at the Dalian Institute of Technology. ''Our Chinese style emphasizes lectures and note-taking rather than active participation by the class.''
All students agreed, however, that they looked forward keenly to plumbing, as it were, the secrets of American management.
''After World War II, Japan succeeded in modernizing its economy because it adapted American management and technology to its own needs,'' said Tian Zhensheng of the Tianjin electronic-components factory. ''There are many differences between capitalist and socialist societies in management - but as we modernize, we must be able to make decisions and to manage our enterprises in fresh ways. We want to learn how things are done in the US, especially how decisions are made in complicated situations. I am told that last year's students took back as much as 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) of books and other material with them when they left. All of us this year have brought vary capacious book bags, so that once we get back to our jobs, we can apply some of the things we have learned here.''