Hundreds of hotshot money managers and analysts convened at the Marriott Marquis in New York last fall fall to attend JPMorgan's annual Asia Pacific and Emerging Markets Equity Conference. I guarantee you that they weren't there because they're scared of investing in emerging-markets stocks.

But you very well might be ... and I can't necessarily blame you.

Some very scary numbers
China, India, Indonesia, Brazil: What do these emerging markets have in common? They were all absolutely crushed in 2008. China was underwater to the tune of 60%, Indonesia and India 50%, and Brazil 40%.

It's been a tough and volatile year for emerging-markets investors, and those who naively came to believe (thanks to the 2003 to 2007 period) that emerging-markets investing was all about outsized gains are scurrying away with their tails between their legs.

This, however, is precisely the wrong time for that kind of reaction.

Take China, for example
The first session at the closed-door conference came courtesy of famed author, investor, and Princeton economist Burton Malkiel. His presentation, titled "Investment Strategies for the China Century," essentially said:

  1. Though China's GDP growth is slowing, it will remain the fastest in the world.
  2. If you're an American investor, you're lucky to have even 2% exposure to China -- and that makes you dangerously underexposed.
  3. The recent decline in China stock valuations, together with the magnitude and duration of China's potential growth, makes today an "unprecedented investment opportunity."

That last phrase is in his words, not mine, though I do agree. The question, of course, is how the individual American investor can take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity.

Your four options
If you're an American investor looking for maximum returns and minimal hassle, then you have four ways to buy China:

  1. Buy a Chinese index fund, such as the Xinhua China 25.
  2. Buy an actively managed mutual fund -- such as Matthews China -- that is concentrated in China.
  3. Buy multinational corporations such as Kraft (NYSE:KFT), Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), and McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) that have made doing business in China a significant part of their growth strategy.
  4. Buy individual Chinese stocks such as SINA (NASDAQ:SINA) and (NASDAQ:CTRP) that trade on U.S. exchanges.

Each of these approaches comes with its own set of pluses and minuses. Though the index fund is low-cost, for example, it will condemn your portfolio to holding nothing but enormous, bureaucratic, state-owned enterprises such as China Unicom (NYSE:CHU) and Sinopec (NYSE:SNP). The actively managed fund might make more discerning stock picks, but it's also expensive -- and Malkiel's research showed that most actively managed China funds substantially underperform the index.

Can you pick your own stocks?
That leaves two options: Picking your own multinationals, or picking your own Chinese stocks. In fact, Malkiel recommends that you do both.

Of course, you'll probably feel more comfortable researching U.S. stocks that have a CEO who speaks your language (literally), that sell products familiar to you, and that release financials you're more likely to trust.

Malkiel argues that when picking Chinese stocks, you should avoid the big state-owned enterprises. Instead, focus on small caps that are run by passionate entrepreneurs, rather than the cautious (and Communist) Chinese government. These stocks have more potential and more upside, and they're more likely to have been overlooked by institutional money thus far -- so you might get a screaming bargain.

To do so, however, you need to know a thing or two about China. At Motley Fool Global Gains, we'd like to help you with that.

Here's why
If you pursue both of these strategies, you mitigate some of the volatility and maintain China's upside -- a recipe for making good money in the long term. If you focus solely on Chinese small caps, then you get a whole heck of a lot of upside, but you will need to be able to withstand serious volatility.

If you stick solely with multinationals, however, then you're back at square one -- lacking direct exposure to China.

Global Gains can help you get out of your comfort zone. We've traveled to China twice over the past year, established a network of contacts, and specialized in finding and vetting promising Chinese small caps that we believe have the potential to be multibaggers many times over for many years to come.

If you'd like to look at all of our China research and insights, as well as read about the stocks we're recommending today, click here to join Global Gains free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published on Sept. 12, 2008. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Best Buy is both a Motley Fool Stock Advisor and an Inside Value selection. Kraft is an Income Investor pick. SINA is a Stock Advisor pick. Ctrip is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy, and its disclosure policy owns other disclosure policies on the basketball court.