Annual Lecture 2021: five key takeaways for students

Andrew Seaton, Chief-Executive of the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC), delivered the Business Confucius Institute Annual Lecture on 24 November 2021.

Andrew graduated from Leeds with a degree in Chinese and Politics over 40 years ago. He formerly served as the Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and had several high-level roles in the UK Diplomatic Service with a focus on UK-China relations.

What can his lecture, Prospects and challenges for UK-China economic and business cooperation, tell students and young professionals interested in China about how to approach their studies, careers, and development?

In this post, Emily Austin-Howell, our Mandarin Aspirations Intern and third-year student at the University of Leeds, identifies five key takeaways from the event.

Background

For more than three decades, China has grown rapidly – often at double-digit rates – by pursuing a strategy of high investment, strong export orientation, and energy-intensive manufacturing.

During the talk we learned that 2021 has been a period of reorientation in which China has shifted toward a new development model focused on high-quality growth. This reflects the maturation of China’s economy in terms of skills, productivity, and rising wages.

In turn, its population has become more prosperous, aspirational, and sophisticated.

With China still classified as a middle-income country, the rise of the middle-class was identified in this talk as one of the most significant projected trends. With the growth of the Chinese middle-class, the most significant shift in the economy will be toward a consumer culture.

Andrew suggested that it is precisely this new growth model that presents new opportunities.

As it is largely a younger demographic driving these new patterns of consumption, facilitated and driven by Internet technologies, students are especially well placed to tap into this long-term growth market.

Key takeaways for students and young professionals

Key takeaway #1: Knowledge is power

A key emphasis in the talk was that for anyone starting out in their careers, China is an “inescapable fact”. As such, your knowledge of China is an increasingly valuable career attribute.

Directly addressing students, Andrew said that China will very much be a factor in our careers and the environment in which we work. Whatever sphere you work in, China will loom large and only grow in importance in the coming years.

Whatever view you take, because it is going to be such a big part of the world scene, from the country’s perspective you can’t not engage. The only question is how you engage.

Key takeaway #2: Get to grips with China’s digital platforms

Students may find opportunities to promote their position as digital natives (by which they can consume digital information and stimuli quickly and comfortably) amid the trend of rising digital adoption.

The Internet is currently the most vibrant part of China’s ‘new economy’, which is also benefiting from a strong period of secular growth. According to a recent survey, more than 60% of Chinese consumers prefer to shop online.

At the same time, Andrew observed that the Chinese Internet is becoming more insular, with increased separation of digital platforms.

Businesses will need to learn how to adapt to these platforms in order to reach the Chinese market, which is no longer regarded as a specialist market but rather as a global one.

Those who understand Chinese technologies and can provide advice on permeation may find that this is a useful expertise that attracts interest in marketing or consulting professions.

Key takeaway #3: Leverage your understanding of influencers

Another important aspect of the Internet economy with which young people are familiar is the ‘influencer’ model.

The explosion of self-media mobile content creators and live streamers is only on the rise. Seaton identifies influencers (or Key Opinion Leaders – KOLs) as having huge influence over buying decisions in China.

Developing your understanding of KOLs in China may help you to stand out to employers who collaborate with them.

Key takeaway #4: There could be a lucrative niche for your business

One point emphasised was that there is room for smaller companies to compete in China’s domestic consumer market.

For enterprising students who are keen to start a business, there may be opportunities to find a niche in China.

The key to success is understanding what Chinese consumers want and targeting the right market. We learned from the presentation that consumer patterns are set by trends of higher expectations and aspirational spending. As in the West, the typical Chinese consumer now places a high value on quality, authenticity, and, increasingly, sustainability – both socially and environmentally.

Because of the emphasis on quality and authenticity, there is a high level of consumer demand for UK goods and services.

Key takeaway #5: Develop your ‘China plus’ strategy

Combining your knowledge of Chinese and/or awareness of China with an additional skill will put you in an excellent position to capitalise on these trends. In addition to consulting and marketing, as previously discussed, this takeaway examines opportunities in the professional, financial, and green sectors.

The service economy

The professional or financial sector could offer opportunities to make use of your China-knowledge.

The financial sector has lately been opened to the West in acknowledgement of Western countries’ experience in developing reputable wealth management services.

China’s ageing and increasingly affluent population is projected to stimulate a boom in investment and wealth management as more workers seek to manage their pool of savings.

Green growth

China’s decisive shift to a higher-quality growth model acknowledges the challenges posed by climate change. Under China’s new development model, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are predicted to peak by 2025, and may even peak sooner.

Its reorientation significantly improves prospects for maintaining global GHG emissions under relatively safe bounds. It also has far-reaching implications for the global economy.

To cut emissions at a rapid rate post-peak, China will look to deepen its planned reforms in cities and in the energy sector, supported by a concerted approach to clean innovation, green finance, and fiscal reforms.

There may also be demand for British technologies in clean innovation, such as lucrative carbon capture projects, and material science.

Students who orient themselves to the green service economy may find that knowledge of China and Chinese adds a valuable string to their bow.

Conclusion

According to this lecture, some key areas of growth and change in China will be technology and consumer-driven. This article may assist you in thinking about how to direct your studies, career, and development considering these new prospects and challenges.

The takeaways highlight the potential benefits of a ‘Chinese plus’ strategy, in which you develop an additional skill such as marketing, finance, or sustainability to make for a powerful combination.

Explore further