An interview with Annie Wei

- a woman studying the economic growth of our world

As our first event this year, TEDWomen2018, fast approaches the TEDxUniversityofLeeds committee is beyond excited to bring you the final in our series of exclusive interviews with our amazing panelists.

So without further ado, we present to you Annie Wei and an endearing, influential conversation about her research, thoughts and opinions on women in Chinese society.

Annie Wei

Annie Wei is a professor in the Business school here at the University of Leeds. Her research interests are focused in international trade, economic development and the Chinese economy. I had the opportunity to meet her and exchange ideas with her regarding the current socioeconomic situation around the globe. 

Most importantly, she shared with me her quite alternative views regarding the position of women in society inspired from her eastern/Chinese cultural background. Her main message: Integration is the way forward! 

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How did you end up working on International Business? Give me a short review of your career with a personal approach.

I am Chinese. My 1st degree is electronic engineering. The truth is I absolutely hated the subject but like many Chinese students when you choose the degree for university study, you listen to your parents. Actually, my mother who is a very strong willed lady said: “You got to do this”. So, I said to myself, "this is the journey I should take". By the time I graduated, I was convinced I did not want to become an engineer. Actually, I tried to work in a company for a few months. But again, it did not suit me. I was just not myself.

Thus, I decided I wanted to become a student again. So as it happens, my father was a business man, and his business had to do with international trade with Russia. Therefore, I decided to study something related to international trade. I contacted scholars here in the UK, and one person was very interested in me and suggested to me doing something related to Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). So, I suppose it is a coincidence, it is not entirely me deciding to do International Business. FDI back in 1990 was a very new concept and especially in China it was quite limited in scale. So, I believe coincidentally, I chose the right topic because it was not so very well researched, and as it happens, I became one of the first few people looking at FDI in China. Thus, I would say the luck plays an important role sometimes.

As far as I understand, studying the economic developments in China has been one of the major incentives throughout your career. May you share with us what an average Chinese citizen thinks about globalisation and internationalisation of trade?

China took a very incremental approach in terms of its economic reform. I think this is quite related to Chinese people’s mentality overall. China as a nation, we are not that adventurous in the sense that people want to try, due to the danger of a failure, even if this is the way forward. I think there is a bit of cultural background in the thinking of economic reform. Also, looking back, even though there is only one party, there are lot of different subgroups. There was an internal conflict between the subgroups because no one wanted to take the full responsibility of a radical change which might turn out to be a failure. Thus, the economic opening of China was gradual but it just came at the right time. A very important part of China’s success is the utilisation of ethnic Chinese overseas. If we take a look at FDI throughout the years it is largely done by ethnic Chinese. Also, if we take a look at trade ethnic Chinese had a very important role in helping Chinese companies to internationalise. Thus, I think China is very successful in terms of utilising its worldwide Chinese network. 

China’s economic centres are mainly located at the coasts of the country (e.g. Shanghai). Is there an equal spread of wealth among coastal and mainland areas?

Actually, every province in China has experienced rapid economic growth, but it just happens that the coastal areas grow much faster than inland. China is not just one country. China is many provinces. So, when it comes to investment and development, it is better to see them as a federation rather than one country. This is because the culture between north and south is different. This difference is quite subtle, however it leads to different economic development since people’s mentality is different. It would not be wise to state China as being one country in terms of investment opportunities

Economic Development in China was mainly driven by FDI which boomed in the 1980s and ‘90s. What were the factors that helped China attract FDI? Can other countries also develop them and attract FDI in the present and future?

I would argue that China came at the right time. If we look at 1980’s, many East Asian countries experienced development, the wage rate increased substantially and the firms located in those countries wanted to find a cheaper production location, and coincidentally at that exact time China did this opening up. China came at the right time, offering good opportunities with cheap labour, willingness to build infrastructure and many state-enterprises looking for collaboration because they were on the verge of collapsing. Everything seemed to fit the bill. 

There is another point-of-view coming from the political science perspective. Their argument is that China was sold to foreign firms. In other words, state owned enterprises were sold to big multinationals. Thus, there is a debate of whether the strengths or the weaknesses of a country attracts FDI. Personally, I feel it is the comparative advantage that is the determinant of FDI. 

I think we should now make a connection between China’s economic development and the current economic status around the world. Several countries are exiting severe economic crisis’s and try to expand their economic output. Do you believe FDI is the way forward, or greater investment in education and infrastructure to promote domestic entrepreneurship?

Why not both? For FDI to benefit the local economy, you need a local economy which is competitive, has the right infrastructure and has the right institutions. You know multinationals are profit driven. They are not saviours of the local economy. They are there because there are profit opportunities present. I think for a local economy to benefit from FDI, they need to self-develop as well.  They need to develop their entrepreneurs who can work with multinationals. They need to develop their education so they can provide human capital to multinationals. Then, these employees could potentially start their own businesses and make the local economy more prosperous. 

In the west, we sometimes promote internationalisation of trade at the loss of our national identity. Do you agree with such an approach? 

I see myself as a global citizen. I think internationalisation and globalisation are good things. Countries need to work with each other. There is no need to lose your national identity just because you integrated with the rest of the world. I will forever be proud for being Chinese. I read Chinese literature, I like Chinese history, and I am not going to forget about that. I do not see a conflict between keeping your national identity, because that is linked to your culture and your understanding of yourself; being a global citizen. 

I would like, at this point, to delve into your Chinese background. Could you please enlighten me regarding the position of women in the Chinese society based on its long lasting culture?

I keep reflecting on that question because I think the women status in Chinese history has changed dramatically. Before 1949 when the communist party came into power, the women needed to take their husband’s surname; this is only one indication that the status of women was not very high, it was indeed very low. As soon as the communist party came into power, the view became that both men and women should ‘carry the sky’! Thus, “women should share half of the sky”, that is what a Chinese saying goes by. Thus, I think the status of women certainly improved dramatically; women were allowed to work even at times when all the population was poor.

An interesting point to make is that when the economic reform came, a significant proportion of women chose to become full time mothers. Even though what counts is for women to have equal status with men. It’s not about the income but about treating each other with respect. We should all make sure that women are not falling behind men or men falling behind women. This kind of a family is sustainable because it involves helping one another, support each other and you shall both move forward. 

Returning back to the West, the status of women has certainly improved even with very slow steps. However, we have not yet reached total equality. Do you think we as women bear some responsibility regarding a lack of self-esteem?

I think to move upwards the proper attitude is “just do it”. I am never afraid of taking new challenges. I am not sure if self-esteem is very relevant.  I am not confident; for every new challenge I undertake for which I have no prior experience, I have bounded to a certain lack of confidence. However, there is an issue of glass-ceiling that many women face. Personally, I have not faced this problem since I always knew what I wanted and followed my philosophy “just do it”! Whatever I wanted, I carried on doing it and in case I did not succeed, it did not matter to me because there are always other opportunities. Unfortunately, however, the glass ceiling and the old boys club has prevented many women from moving upwards. 

Finally, I would very much like to hear your opinion regarding an issue that troubles a lot of the UK and EU. Do you believe European Economic Integration can take Eurozone out of the austerity cycle of the last decade?

I do! I am a professor of International Business; I strongly support integration of countries, it does not matter if they are European countries or other countries around the globe! Let’s suppose that a country does not participate, they will forever be behind. If you are not part of the conversation how can you drive things forward? I am a believer of greater integration! Integration of countries into the global economy is the way forward!

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