Political economist and global media veteran Shirley Yu has risen to prominence as a global expert on China, working with Fortune Global 500 companies, while building her twin brands in public policy and media, following a decorated career at the culminating point of global business, academia, media and public policy over the past decade, all on China.
Having completed her PHD in Political Economy from China’s Peking University, and a Master’s Degree from Harvard University, Yu is currently also a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and a fellow at the Ash Center, Harvard Kennedy School.
Post the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, Yu returned to China as a news anchor for China’s English News network-CCTV News (predecessor of CGTN). Since her departure from the English network, Yu has become a public figure and a thought leader on China’s political economy and geopolitics. She devotes her life to help reason China’s transforming role in the current era, and China’s crucial relationship with the US, and in return, both forces fundamentally define her as a Chinese American.
In this interview, we take a look at Shirley’s remarkable career journey and explore her experiences in both business and public policy, as well as her perspectives on China’s future global role.
In discussion with Dr Shirley Yu
Can you share some insights into your media background and some of your most memorable experiences?
I became a Chinese national TV News anchor in 2009 following an investment banking career in the US. That was a wonderful period of time when China was eager to converge with the rest of the world. Former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was in China 70 times over that period and Beijing was quickly rising economically, and played a crucial role in pulling the world out of the Global Financial Crisis. In retrospect, that was also the turning point of the 21st century, when China’s rise and the West’s relative decline happened in concurrence.
I got to interview many leading global figures over the years. I got to share the speaking floors with the leading minds of our times; Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, late Prime Minister Bob Hawke, former Prime Minister David Cameron, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and many other leading business and political figures around the world. All of these visionaries helped shape my world view in a profound way. I left Chinese media in 2013 to pursue other career plans. But I have always had a passion for media. The hunch comes naturally to me. Today, I can talk on the BBC, Bloomberg and so on about China as a trained political economist. I do a lot of that. But I am also always curious to hear people with different world views who can challenge my thinking. It is that intellectual curiosity and love for ideas that always puts me back into an inquisitive media mindset.
Can you tell us more about Hey China! and how you started your Business Talk Show?
I started Hey China! post-COVID19 in March this year, with my co-host Martina Fuchs. At the time, not only global travel was completely disrupted, the global geopolitical debate surrounding China also started to intensify. I felt at the time it was important to connect the Chinese change-makers and thought leaders with the rest of the world through authentic, equalitarian, and truthful conversations.
On Hey China! shows, I want to remove the traditional sense of media entitlement, and the expert authorities. I look for the change-makers, the thought leaders, the youth innovators who are under-discovered, yet are creating the economic and social impacts in China.
We produced a series of Forbes 30 under 30 shows from China. The optimism from the young is incredibly inspiring to me. I realized when the youth is driven, fearless, and hopeful, the country will always have a brighter future. We also brought global leading corporate executives to the spotlight, who usually are uptight on TV. We often get some good laughs and make them open up to controversial questions. We interviewed a senior Huawei HR executive, who was surprisingly candid about Huawei’s corporate culture to be Number 1.
We invited David Wei, former CEO of Alibaba, to discuss China’s new engines in innovation. We had Mr. Schubert Lou, COO of Trip.com, China’s leading online travel company, to discuss industry disruptions and competition shortly after COVID-19. The conversations were illuminating, entertaining, and authentic.
I never cease to be amazed by how each conversation with our guests takes us to envision a different future possibility all together. I want to take this opportunity to thank our guests.
Hey China! is currently streamed across various social media platforms. We aim to build it into the Number 1 Business Talk Show on China for the world. It is said when one aims at the stars, one may climb to the top of a tree. Who knows what future has in store for us. But I do know that we are on a big mission and on a path few travel. We want to open a window for the world to see an authentic and dynamic China. I feel blessed we have a great creative team from all over the world, who share our mission.
What are your thoughts on the current media landscape from an entrepreneur’s perspective and how should people be innovating in 2020?
China is the second largest economy in the world today, but China does not have a proportional pool of global personalities, be it in sports, music, media, or entertainment. I often joke that the White House would like to ban TikTok out of the US Market. But if you watch TikTok, it is the perfect platform to spread the American soft power, through songs, dances and culture. A Chinese platform has successfully lent its engineering superiority to carry the American soft power all over the world – not China’s own soft power- and this is often not discussed or even acknowledged.
If you ask me about American media personalities, I can name a large number of names. If you ask me about Chinese media personalities on the global stage, I would not be able to name more than a few. And if I have to name one, the first coming to mind would be Jack Ma. Bear in mind that I am someone who is intimately familiar with the whole arena. China has not successfully produced prominent representatives of its soft power, in proportion to its hard power today, nothing near what the US has accomplished in this regard.
The form of media today has fundamentally changed to become more digital and more social – in a way more egalitarian. The barrier to entry in media today is virtually zero. Every person with a social media profile can be a potential media personality.
But the essence of media should not change with the change of time. Media is about the passion and love for truth. That should be eternally honored.
What are your views on China’s economic rise over the past 40 years and what have been some of the big changes that you’ve seen?
Shenzhen’s GDP has risen 10,000 times in just 40 years since China’s Reform and Opening up. What’s going to fundamentally change China, in the current decade and beyond, is the marriage of telecom infrastructures and the digital economy. There are 60 million 5G users in China now, and by 2025, there will be 430 million. The early mover advantage in 5G infrastructures will enable China to accumulate data much more robustly. Data is essential for the development of AI, IoTs, smart cities, and data capitalism for the 21st Century. In this regard, the fundamental competition between the US and China is going to be centered on technology leadership.
Post COVID-19, China has resorted to massive digital infrastructure building initiatives. So far, $5 trillion has been earmarked for digital infrastructure development over the next 5 years. We have not heard deliberate infrastructure, more specifically digital infrastructure building initiatives from the US post COVID-19. FDR initiated the New Deal in the 1930s to pull the US out of the Great Depression. Infrastructure investment will be the best form of investment, and the best economic rescue, in my view. In the US, a New Deal 2.0 is very much needed, in order to build a stronger America.
What needs to be done over the next 5-10 years to manage relations between China and other countries including the US, UK and Europe?
China this year is projected to grow at circa 2%. The EU will contract about 8%, and the US, about 6%. China will continue to rise on a relative basis against the US. China, both economically and geopolitically, will continue to matter more to the rest of the world.
In anticipating the coming decades of change, vision is important. Many people say China, because of its long history, is accustomed to long-term thinking. I think that is mostly true, although some will challenge me. For the Chinese, thinking in a 100-year time span would be a logical way to put Chinese history into a structured narrative, to draw grand theories out of constant shifts and cycles.
China has recently launched a series of grand visions, from Made in China 2025, to AI Vision 2030, to China Standards 2035.
In this increasingly decoupled world, there is less willingness from both the US and China to reveal strategic intentions and execution plans to each other. I often find that many of the critical policy debates happening inside China are increasingly more opaque to the outside world. This is certainly true to US policies towards China as well. When the Chinese Consulate in Houston was shut, I think the Chinese government was caught completely off guard. Sealing critical strategies from each other is strategically optimal for countries involved, but not good news for global stakeholders.
In response to this risky strategic policy decoupling, a daily China intelligence and insights newsletter, called China BIG Idea, was launched to bring vision to the world’s significant stakeholders, either in corporate boardrooms or in policy war rooms. We simply want to get rid of the -isms debate, to get to the fundamental visions that can shape China and the world’s relationship with it.
Can you share some insights on your public policy career?
I am a political economist. I am currently a senior visiting fellow at the LSE, and Asia fellow with the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. I am privileged to work with leading global media, from the BBC, Bloomberg, to various others. I believe in order for policies to be effective, one must translate very ornate concepts into relatable conversations, in order to touch the hearts and souls of the people.
I speak across leading global think tanks, from the Chatham House, the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, to my alma mater Harvard University, Asia Society, the Wilson Center, and the LSE etc.
This year, I spend a lot of time researching the techno-geopolitical implications of China’s telecommunications and fintech rise. I just completed a chapter contribution to the Palgrave Macmillan book Huawei Goes Global: Made in China for the World, which will be coming out shortly. I am a contributor to the FT, and have just been named a South China Morning Post Expert.
Kissinger is my inspiration in life. I have fond memories of a Platonic dialogue with him a couple of years ago. He did not speak very many words, but every word mattered weightily. He had a great sense of intellectual humor. I have always been reminded how a brilliant mind has changed the course of the 20th century, the course for China, and how one may forever be on the journey to achieve a grand vision.