• Taylor Bennett Heyman

The Evolution and Ascent of Government Affairs in China

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

Government affairs may be a young profession in China, but its development has been stark.  Compared with the U.S. and Europe, government affairs in China has matured rapidly.  Technical knowledge of the policy environment, and the ability to think strategically about issues, have quickly become fundamental requirements for government affairs practitioners.  This pivot towards “what you know”, as opposed to just “who you know”, has occurred far more quickly than in the U.S. and Europe.  Ten years ago, when I first started recruiting senior-level government affairs professionals in London, the “who you know” would always be a key consideration in the client’s eyes, whether or not they chose to say so explicitly.  And in many respects, this is still the case in the U.S. and Europe today.

President Xi’s very public clamp down on corruption, his drive for increased government transparency, and the manner in which his Government likes to engage with business, have all contributed to the professionalisation of government affairs in China.  Furthermore, in modern-day China the Government is an essential stakeholder for all businesses.  It follows, therefore, that government affairs is considered a necessary and strategic function.  Strong business acumen is something that senior business leaders the world over look for in government affairs officers.  And I continue to be struck by the quality of the government affairs talent pool in China, where this aptitude is notably prevalent.

"Above all, people working in this field in China need to have good judgement and strong business acumen."

Governments anywhere in the world are selective about how and when they engage with business.  In China today, the opportunities for business to engage with government are certainly greater than they have been, but businesses must be strategic about when, how and on which topics they choose to do so.  This impetus on selectively engaging with government, so as to avoid any missteps, has heightened the need for government affairs officers to be highly analytical, and to demonstrate a strong technical understanding of the policy and regulatory environment.  Above all, people working in this field in China need to have good judgement and strong business acumen.

Government affairs officers in China must think and act proactively in developing a dialogue with government.  Whilst this is a common component in government affairs roles globally, China differs in the sense that, if a large-scale business wants to move forward, engagement with government is a necessity; it must take a constructive form, with the advancement of the country or industry at large underscoring the exchange.

With central government devolving and decentralising some of its powers, local government is becoming increasingly influential in China, particularly in respect to policy implementation.  The policy landscape is becoming more complex as a result, so there is a greater need than ever for businesses to stay abreast of developments at both the local and national levels of government.

Another area in which government affairs professionals in China are having to sharpen their skills is in respect to the broader stakeholder environment.  All across the world at the moment, populism is driving politics.  China is no exception and consumer protection ranks high on the Government’s agenda.  Consequently, government affairs is becoming inextricably linked with work that has traditionally been the domain of communications.  We are seeing an increasing number of corporate relations roles emerge, whereby businesses are seeking people with an aptitude for both government affairs and communications.

To add to this intricacy, we have also witnessed an increasing number of examples where the function is being interwoven with legal affairs, particularly in highly-regulated businesses.  Given the evolution of the function – from guanxi-based activity to a role that requires deep technical knowledge of the policy, regulatory and economic landscape – it is almost inevitable that the function will start to steer more closely towards legal affairs.

Government affairs in China is critical for large-scale businesses, particularly those operating in highly-regulated sectors.  Unlike in other parts of the world, where the function and profession has developed credibility more slowly, it has grown rapidly in stature in China.  Given the integral link between government and business, it is likely we’ll see a steady stream of government affairs professionals transitioning into general management roles in the future.  This is something that, arguably, has proven more difficult to do in other parts of the world, where government affairs is more often than not a destination career, rather than a stepping stone.

By Sarah Crawshaw (Managing Director, Asia Pacific)

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