The future of work for China and New Zealand

The Global Young Leaders Forum and the annual Caixin Summit in Beijng left PocketSmith CEO Jason Leong pondering how China and New Zealand could change in the next decade, as technology advances and new perspectives change the way we work locally and globally. 

The historic district of Houhai in Beijing is sleepy by day.

Its lake is a meeting point for senior folk in the afternoon, where men in matching white trunks swim together and others close by practice tai chi. Groups of friends park their bicycles by tables to chat, smoke cigarettes and play cards.

But in November last year, gathering not far from the idyllic scenes were ex-heads of the World Bank, presidential advisers, and ex-Obama administration staff. Representatives from AirBnB, Mastercard, a Nobel Prize winner – the list goes on.

I touched down in Beijing last year to join them in attending the Caixin Summit and Global Young Leaders Forum, events both hosted by one of the country’s most progressive media companies: Caixin Media.


This year’s topic at the summit: “Opening up: China and the world”.  The key agenda was the trend of anti-globalisation and how we can address the related challenges both domestically and globally.

The next decade comes with rapid changes to the global economy, as well as options and attitudes to work. So here’s what I was curious about when I landed in Beijing: what did some of the world’s prominent minds see as needing immediate attention; what role would China play given its escalating influence; and what could we learn in order to affect positive change in and from New Zealand?

I also had notes I wanted to trade on the future of work. It’s a topic my company, PocketSmith, and I are passionate about. We create money management software for people worldwide and are part of the advancements the internet has brought to personal finance over the last 10 years.

The Young Leaders Forum on day one was at the Peninsula Hotel Beijing where I found myself sharing a roundtable with about 20 other attendees. The room was packed with local thought leaders and Summit delegates, alongside photographers and translators.

The topics were ambitious, including one on tech divergence and bifurcation between China and the world. This issue sums up a key point of consternation for global consumers and represents a growing challenge for Kiwi tech businesses looking to trade within China.

While in China, I came up against the Great Firewall which cut me off from many workplace apps. It was sobering to understand how reliant I was on a small set of key services. The starting point for most of my work — Google and Gmail — were blocked on the internet and our product, PocketSmith, was slow to load, hinting at filtering happening in the background.

I ventured to the Chinese panel that this kind of bifurcation was a complex topic, raising questions about control and influence over communication and free expression, unilateralism, data privacy and sovereignty, but most notably, differing ideologies as expressed through technology.

I followed up, questioning whether this difference could be overcome and lead to an internet that facilitated true open global trade. Each country may have the right to govern its citizens’ internet use, but waters are muddied when foreign investment pushes ideological influence across borders: for example, when global companies with Chinese stakeholders penalised customers outside of China for expressing unfavourable sentiments.

The response was silence. After a mildly awkward moment, the moderator asked if I had an opinion to share instead, but all I could add was that it was a difficult question to answer. It is, however, an important one to address if China intends to open up to the world.

Following the Forum was the Caixin Summit and it was an impressive production. Caixin Media pulled out all the stops, hosting it at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse: 100 acres of beautiful gardens, waterfalls, and villas. To enter, those of us on foot had our passports checked and we entered through metal detectors, as convoys of black SUVs barrelled past a guard’s sharp salute.

There was a lot to take in at the Summit and there’s a lot I’m still thinking about.

But here’s what I believe the future may hold for a tech company exporting globally from New Zealand: there is a real threat of a global shift towards unilateralism led by the US-China trade war against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown.

This, combined with China’s rapid growth and resulting influence, gives credence to the idea of a multipolar world, where we move from an era with the US as the dominant superpower, to one where power is shared amongst two or more countries. And, in the context of the internet, an era in which the web and its users come under the pressure of multiple ideologies, resulting in a profound impact on our online freedoms.

It may be harder to deliver services across borders in the coming decade, due in part to protectionist measures enforced both economically through tariffs and taxation, and technologically, through internet restriction and data sovereignty policies.

In practice, this would result in higher costs to trade across borders due to increased levels of compliance and adherence to local regulatory requirements. New Zealand tech companies will need to analyse this more rigorously when determining a market entry strategy.

Where unilateralism is applied as an expression of national strength in an effort to correct a perceived imbalance in the distribution of wealth, it follows that protectionist measures will limit the global exchange and exposure of intellectual property and information.

Data would be more valuable than ever. Privacy breaches from 2019 provide evidence on how it’s used to influence key decisions — from what you buy, to how you vote. In an era where poles of influence and power have varying opinions on data privacy rights, tech companies need to be more vigilant in protecting customer data.

While it was a sobering assessment of what may be, it was inspiring to hear a consensus on what’s needed to build a better future: eliminating poverty and lifting the middle class; tackling climate change; co-designing a new multilateralism for shared prosperity; remarkable statesmanship and demonstration of diplomacy.

Of interest to me was an observation on the global rise in social and income inequality, and its relevance to the rise in populism due to political reactions from regions that see a lack of investment.

IMF Chief Economist Raghuram Rajan stressed the importance of equal opportunity, saying while society was becoming more meritocratic, it still favoured children of the successful. To this, he was in favour of fiscal policies bolstering regional communities and growing jobs to empower areas needing help.

Former Chief Economist for the World Bank Lawrence Summers emphasised the need to focus on solving challenges together – of protectionism, climate change, and supporting the vast middle class – by maintaining a strong local community amid global convergence.

As I reflect on what I learned, I push past the dire predictions and think back to key takeaways given by the world’s leading economists: Strive for equal opportunity. Bolster communities. Grow jobs in the regions. Maintain a strong local community.

These goals relate to two growing domestic issues. Housing affordability is one, with a clear correlation to the second: income inequality.

At PocketSmith, we put people first and recognise the benefits of flexible work. We’re headquartered in Dunedin but 85 percent of us live in the regions, whether that’s off-grid in the native bush of the Coromandel, or in a new tiny house destined for a sunny paddock. This all happens while serving customers worldwide.

We believe one of the biggest differences we can make as New Zealand employers is to be part of employees’ journeys in finding suitable places to live. Location is a key contributor to quality of life but a more tangible measure of success is achieving housing payments of less than 30% of gross income. One way to get there is to live outside the centres.

Best of all, our government is laying the groundwork to make this a reality, with UFB delivering fibre to urban areas, the Rural Broadband Initiative for the rest, and most recently, the Provincial Growth Fund, designed to unlock regional economic potential.

Speaking to Summit attendees about our resources and opportunities has reinforced my understanding that New Zealanders have a real edge in defining the future of work and being a global example. One that focuses on wellness, productivity and empowering change in our communities.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation supported Jason Leong to attend the Caixin Global Young Leaders Forum in Beijing in November 2019.

Republished from Asia Media Centre

Author: Jason Leong

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