The Inside Story of Digital Technology in Mainland China

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Of the many fronts in which the US and Mainland China are competing for global supremacy, perhaps the newest is digital technology, with artificial intelligence (AI) its primary battleground. It is a campaign in which Mainland China is determined to be victorious in.

Technology has been pinpointed by the Chinese government as an area in which the modus operandi must be changed. For so long, Mainland China has been the chief provider of ‘cheap and cheerful’, but recently there has been a determined drive to become the creators of market-leading value-added technology, with an eye on world domination. 

Much like the Made in China 2025 initiative to drive forward Chinese industry, the government is making a concerted push into technology, with a stated aim to become the world leader in AI by 2030. 

“Artificial intelligence has become the new focus of international competition,” said a State Council policy statement.  “We must take the initiative to firmly grasp the next stage of AI development to create a new competitive advantage, open the development of new industries and improve the protection of national security.”

To this end, Mainland China intends to build a domestic industry worth almost US$150 billion and as a PwC report predicts, AI could add US$15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030 – more than the output of India and Mainland China combined – so there is no surprise that private companies such as Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings are making concerted moves into the industry

All this movement is driving mass requirements for candidates in various areas of the AI industry.

While this global war for AI dominance rumbles on, there is another battle taking shape closer to home. With one of the world’s largest consumer pools, online retailers are fighting for customer share and interaction. For now, the stand out player is Alibaba, with its e-commerce presence pushing it to become the world’s sixth largest retailer, its revenues in 2017 had been outstripping predictions even before November’s Singles Day event in November saw it hit an astronomic US$25.4 billion in sales.

Though it accounts for about 80 per cent of online sales in Mainland China, it’s not just Jack Ma’s conglomerate that is reaping the rewards of the online shopping market. Multiple outlets in the e-commerce sector are taking gradual steps towards challenging the dominance of bricks and mortar retailers, and companies are exploring ways of reaching out to customers. As Chinese spend 95 per cent of their online time on their mobile devices, it is here, with internet commerce and mobile downloadable apps that the battle for consumer capture and sales is likely to be fought and won.

As a result of this, there are an abundance of vacancies in the sector and it is an extremely candidate short market, particularly in the areas of Ecommerce Operation Managers, Internet Operators, Big Data Analysts and Product Managers who can install and operate online strategies.

Due to this shortage, there has been competition for candidates over the last 18 months. This has led to local companies accelerating their recruitment processes to ensure that they are able to secure available candidates, meaning that roles do not remain vacant for long. MNCs, who tend to have more structured interview processes, are unable to move so quickly leading them to miss out. These talent wars are likely to continue into the next year as the continuous creation of different products and different applications will require a steady stream of those who can develop, maintain and implement strategies.

Despite this shortage, digital technology is not an unattractive career path. Quite to the contrary, it is one of the most popular industries at the moment as career progressions are fast and candidates are keen on operating with the latest technology in the most current trend areas. However, demand is so strong that candidates can receive four or five offers at a time, a trend that is expected to continue for the coming year.

All this means that it is a good time for candidates to consider finding new positions as companies work hard to entice them, with bigger organisations unleashing considerable budgets on employer branding, online marketing, offline event strategies and seminars.

The shortage is so pronounced, particularly in niche tech areas, that candidates are fully aware of their power and are holding out for increasingly substantial packages, with some local companies offering increases of between 30 and 50 per cent for junior and mid-level candidates. However, as salaries continue to rise, candidates may persuaded to move after less than two years in a position, with some not even seeing out probation periods before absconding to the next wage increase.

MNCs, conversely, seem less prepared to engage in salary skirmishes, preferring candidates who are looking for more than just the highest bidder. As they seek out creative, proactive candidates with leadership potential and an ability to drive innovation, they offer status and global exposure rather than fiscal reward. Due to the international nature of these roles, English speaking is a must, particularly in the mid to senior-level vacancies. 

To fill these positions, companies are looking increasingly overseas, with the USA proving to be a fertile hunting ground. With a large and longstanding internet practice, companies are extremely interested in attracting candidates from the States, especially those who have operated in Silicon Valley and have worked with big data or on large Internet platforms. The key challenge here is of course that the local internet giants require Mandarin-speaking candidates at all costs. Due to this necessity, a returning Chinese national is preferred, however the only barrier to Mandarin-fluent foreigners would be recently tightened visa restrictions, something unlikely to pose serious impediments for any large Internet conglomerate. 

And so, as China’s digital technology companies look to bring high level talent from the U.S., as they set up R&D centres in Silicon Valley, and as the government continues to pour vast investment into AI, it feels like there could be two clear winners in the digital tech war: Mainland China and the candidates who work within its industry.

Originally produced for Hays Recruitment