China tech firms promote younger staff

HONG KONG/BEIJING • Chinese tech giants are in the hunt for young, energetic staff to take the place, in some cases, of veteran managers. They deny the moves reflect any discrimination based on age.

Last Thursday, Tencent Holdings confirmed plans to reshuffle 10 per cent of its managers. "Let some older members of management retire from their positions," said Tencent Holdings president Martin Lau. "Their jobs will be taken up by younger people, new colleagues who may be more passionate."

Analysts said the move to promote younger managers is driven in part by the rise of a new generation of Chinese Internet companies such as Pinduoduo and Bytedance, mostly run by entrepreneurs and engineers born in the 1980s or 1990s.

"The environment and external pressures are pushing these companies to reform; if the leadership is too old, it's easy for them to fall behind," said Mr Li Chengdong, a Beijing-based tech analyst who used to work at Tencent and JD.com.

"In the US and Europe, you rarely see companies going through structural reform every other year, but it's quite common in China... Core leadership can be replaced within a very short amount of time."

At Baidu, CEO Robin Li said in an internal letter - which the firm made public - that it plans to accelerate efforts to become more youthful this year by promoting more workers born after 1980, and also announced an executive retirement plan.

The first to leave under that plan is its president for new business, Mr Zhang Yaqin, who will retire in October, Mr Li said. Local media reported Mr Zhang's age as 53.

CORE LEADERS REPLACED QUICKLY

The environment and external pressures are pushing these companies to reform; if the leadership is too old, it's easy for them to fall behind... In the US and Europe, you rarely see companies going through structural reform every other year, but it's quite common in China... Core leadership can be replaced within a very short amount of time.

MR LI CHENGDONG, a Beijing-based tech analyst who used to work at Tencent and e-commerce giant JD.com.

"For senior managers who have worked hard for the company and accompanied its growth, if they want to choose a new life because of personal or family reasons, we will take care of them under the executive retirement plan," Mr Li wrote.

A Baidu spokesman said that age is not a factor in whether managers chose to retire and it was up to them if they wanted to join the plan.

Mr Lei Jun, chief of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, said on March 20 that the company was appointing new, younger general department managers as part of an organisational restructuring.

A Xiaomi spokesman said the company was not cutting the senior management team but that it needed to promote "younger talents" to support its rapid expansion.

Chinese tech workers in their 30s and 40s told Reuters they had come to accept the industry's preference for youth, but worried that it was becoming more extreme, especially in up-and-coming fields such as artificial intelligence.

"I'm not worrying so much about losing my job, but certainly, there is worry that I will not get promoted," said a 38-year-old engineer at JD.com. Like other employees interviewed for this story, he declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

A JD.com spokesman said it did not discriminate and that any high-performing employee is eligible for promotion.

A 29-year-old female programmer for one of China's top short-video platforms said ageism was of greater concern to women. "It can take a longer time for women to progress to the better jobs, so the age restriction affects them more heavily," she said.

Older workers have few legal options. "The only recourse Chinese workers have is if they're not properly compensated once they're laid off," said Mr Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'China tech firms promote younger staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe