China: a tale of two cities (Shanghai)

The morning after arriving in Shanghai, I travelled with the ICAEW regional director for China & South East Asia, Mark Billington, and colleagues from our China team to meet the Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General of the Shanghai Institute of Certified Public Accountants - to reinforce our partnerships with our professional colleagues in Shanghai.

In the afternoon, I delivered a lecture to students at the Shanghai National Accounting Institute (SNAI) on the digitalisation of tax administration. The first half of the lecture was very much a personal perspective, drawing on 20 years’ experience as a practitioner as well as my insights as a member of HMRC’s Carter Project Board (and more recently its Administrative Burdens Advisory Board). In the second half, I added an international context using illustrations from the ICAEW IT Faculty report, Digitalisation of Tax: International Perspectives, as well as insights I have gained from discussions with tax authorities and practitioners in my travels as ICAEW president. Shanghai-based ICAEW member Cong Zhang then gave his perspective (to highlight the pace of change digital technology is driving, he said that it took 75 years for the telephone to be adopted by 50 million users: Pokemon Go reached that same number in just 19 days).

After the lecture we met with the principal of SNAI, President Li. I first met President Li in London early last year, when ICAEW and SNAI launched our joint report, Big data in Chinese Businesses. A second joint report with SNAI is in progress and at our meeting we discussed ideas for further co-operation. One of my main ambitions for ICAEW in my year as president has been to ensure that we are seen as leaders in the use of digital technology, and our partnership with SNAI is an important component of this ambition.

Leaving the impressive SNAI campus, I returned with the ICAEW team to host a dinner for ICAEW members in Shanghai. One guest at my table showed me a message he’d just received from a member I’d met in Vancouver in February: it simply said, “I gather you will be meeting Paul tonight – give him my best wishes and here is a photograph of our last meeting”. That message brought the ideas of digital technology and community together: our 152,000 members, in 153 countries around the world, form a proud international community - one where digital technology can link three members who live in Vancouver, Shanghai and London, in a microsecond. That concept of a global connected community is completely in tune with the Belt & Road Initiative.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace and on an unprecedented scale. My meetings in China reinforced my already strongly-held belief that we must remain leaders in the digital space and active, leading members of a connected, global finance and accountancy profession.

And having borrowed my title from Dickens, perhaps I can borrow four words from his novel’s opening line to end this blog: if we seize the opportunity to lead on digital and to connect globally, these really can be the best of times.

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