China’s graduates told to embrace financial reshuffle, ‘don’t feel ashamed’ about career

A commencement speech at a top Chinese university in Shanghai went viral this weekend after a professor reassured students not to be ashamed of taking a job in the finance sector, sparking debate amid the industry’s heightened scrutiny and dwindling reputation.

Li Feng, deputy dean of Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Advanced Institute of Finance, said on Saturday that despite the current emphasis on technological innovation, finance remains crucial to China’s economic strength, and that graduates should feel “deeply proud” to be working in finance.

“Some people have started to think that the finance industry is worthless because it does not seem to be hardcore technology, viewing it as an unnecessary transaction cost,” Li said.

“Even some finance professionals, including our students and alumni, have developed a sense of professional shame.”

As finance professionals or those engaged in corporate investment and financing, we should not feel ashamed, but rather deeply proud
Li Feng

Li argued that the mindset needed to be corrected, emphasising the indispensable role of financial services in developing the “new productive forces” – a term coined by President Xi Jinping last year to seek new drivers of economic growth via frontier technologies – and that finance is the lifeblood of the economy and a vital part of China’s core competitiveness.

“As finance professionals, or those engaged in corporate investment and financing, we should not feel ashamed, but rather deeply proud,” he added.

The comments came at a time when China’s financial industry, once thriving with well-paid bankers and brokers, is undergoing significant transformation, while the reputation of industry professionals has also taken a hit.

According to a report by Chinese media outlet Yicai, nearly 10 brokers in China were punished for alleged misbehaviour by regulators in April.

However, despite recent lay-offs and pay cuts, salaries in the finance industry remain among the highest in China, with the sector continuing to be one of the most coveted career paths for graduates.

Encouraged by Beijing since the 2010s to follow Western counterparts with generous salaries, institutions like China International Capital Corporation (CICC) saw average annual pay rises from 700,000 yuan in 2018 to 1.15 million yuan (US$158,000) in 2020, despite the national per capita income being only 35,128 yuan.

But in recent years, Beijing’s financial leaders have pushed for a remoulding of the industry, emphasising national strategies over excessive profits.

In January, President Xi stressed the need for financial workers to be honest, trustworthy and avoid quick success.

Xi’s comments were part of a broader common prosperity drive to reduce income gaps and tackle corruption, with regulators poised to cap state bank salaries at 3 million yuan, potentially retroactively.

Consequently, many finance professionals, including at Citic Securities and CICC, are experiencing significant pay cuts amid the broader industry shift.

In China’s predominantly state-owned financial industry, brokers and funds are cutting salaries and benefits instead of conducting large-scale lay-offs.

According to quarterly reports, CICC reduced staff-related costs by 43.4 per cent in the first three months of the year compared to the same period in 2023.

Other top securities firms, including Citic Securities, CSC Financial and Guotai Junan Securities, have also seen reductions in labour costs.



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