In China, an Unprecedented Economic Transformation

Lei Zhang ’02 is investing in Chinese companies during an extraordinary moment in history, he told students at Yale SOM on April 27. The country, he said, has been undergoing an economic transformation unlike any other on the planet. The United States, he noted, evolved sequentially through an Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and an information age over nearly 200 years. China is experiencing all three simultaneously.

Left to right: Guolu Qiu, Stephen Roach, Lei Zhang

“China has an unprecedented triple combination. It’s all happening at the same time and to a scale of 1.3 billion people,” Zhang said. “Think about using the United States as a parallel example, it’s like having Carnegie, Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and Mark Zuckerberg sitting together in the same room, in the same decade, building up all the wealth and value at the same time.”

Zhang, the president and chief investment officer of Hillhouse Capital Management, spoke as part of a panel discussion with Guolu Qiu, CEO of Gaoyi Asset Management. Stephen Roach, senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, moderated the conversation, part of the Colloquium in Asset Management. The three explored the environment for investors in China, the trends shaping investments now, and the outlook for asset managers.

Qiu said that China has developed a generation of home-grown entrepreneurs in a decade of economic growth. “The view that Chinese don’t innovate is something that needs to change,” he said. “That’s something that’s already changing in the mobile internet area. You get to a certain point where when you have a number of small changes, they accumulate, and they lead to something new.”

Both investors disagreed with a commonly held view of Chinese companies: that they excel at reproducing existing products more cheaply. Today, Zhang said, China produces real innovation. He has invested in WeChat, a messaging platform with more than 500 million users in China. The company has now expanded beyond the mainland to Indonesia and includes mobile person-to-person payment features. Chinese digital products, he said, are finding new ways to flourish abroad.

“Today, innovation is being exported from China,” Zhang said. “In emerging markets, people are trying all kinds of ways to get connected. There are so many ways that people are using commerce through social products. China has become a magnet for innovation.”

View photos from the event.