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‘Our ambition is to develop the country better and better for ourselves and our people’: Buddha of the Chinese Insurance Market!

July 26, 2019

Looking back just two decades, China’s current GWP – at an approximate US$ 600 bn – is 30 times of what it was when it entered the WTO. Not only has Ping An emerged as the world’s largest insurer during the short spell, in terms of revenue 8 Chinese insurers figure in the Fortune 500 list. This time frame may be like a blip in the history of world’s oldest living civilization. Yet, the last 20 years mark the most phenomenal development in the history of insurance. China edged out Japan and is slowly but steadily catching up with the USA!

Achieving such a momentum calls for humongous effort, team work, leadership and synergies. One man who stands tall here, tirelessly working behind the scene – who I allude to as the ‘Buddha of the Chinese Insurance Market’ – is Dr. Chen Bingzheng.

Dr. Bingzheng is a Masters in Mathematics and a PhD in Operations Research and Systems Engineering. In 1984, he started as the Professor in the Department of Management Science at the Beijing-based Tsinghua University – currently ranking number 12 in the world.

Dr. Bingzheng was appointed Tsinghua’s Director of Insurance Programme – in 1999. ‘At that time China was negotiating with the World Trade Organization (WTO) the market opening including insurance.  We, however, did not have enough people to man the fledgling insurance industry’.

‘There was a big and urgent need to improve our insurance education. Aegon Life gave Tsinghua a great contribution of $ 1 million to set up an insurance programme. We needed more and more people at high level. In 2008, Zurich Life set up a research centre. In a young industry, education and research also was a young area’, he recalls.

We could woo famous faculty from the US and Europe to exchange research and respective experience with the Chinese academics through this window, year on year…

‘We were very keen to set up a window for the Chinese faculty to learn about the progress in insurance education and research worldwide. We could woo famous faculty from the US and Europe to exchange research and respective experience with the Chinese academics through this window, year on year’.

This year, the China International Conference on Insurance and Risk Management (CICIRM) completed 10 years. I have had the pleasure of attending and presenting at six of the last seven. While the CICIRM is run on behest of the Tsinghua School of Economics & Management (SEM) – each year the location changes, depending upon the collaborating university. This time, it was the School of Insurance at the South Western University of Finance and Economics (SWUFE) – Chengdu, Sichuan. The elegant and sprawling green campus hosted the first day’s proceedings. Incidentally, Sichuan is renowned for its spicy cuisine, is the home for giant and red pandas and last but not the least the birthplace of Taoism.

On day one of the Plenary Sessions – for the last two years – the key focus has been on challenges relating to ageing, longevity and the looming global pension crisis. It’s a rare privilege to see top names as speakers. This time, they were all from North America. The rest was not just about say ‘ML/AI for Quantitative Risk Modelling’ – but societal grassroot level issues too – like the ‘Mechanism of Inclusive Insurance to Alleviate Poverty Vulnerability under the Impact of Agricultural Risk’ or current issues such as ‘Air Pollution and Insurance’.

Day two is sheer clockwork precision. Nine parallel sessions run ranging from three to six presentations – predominantly in Mandarin – with just a couple in English. The total count, for the day this year, was 135 papers. The day 3 ends with two plenary sessions and a panel discussion. It is truly inspiring to see papers representing multiple authors from diverse locations – not just from China but international collaborations, too. Many who showcase their work are first-time presenters in English. That I believe is the genius of Dr. Bingzheng – nudging the Chinese scholars to emerge from their cocoon and transform! In his modest words, ‘Our ambition is to develop the country better and better for ourselves and our people’.

‘The quality of papers presented has improved dramatically over the years’, says Dr. Gene Lai, James J. Harris Chair of Risk Management and Insurance, from University of North Carolina. Thanks to the CICIRM, which provides a western style platform of academic research for domestic scholars, the papers presented are more empirical now than just descriptive. The outstanding keynote speakers and the western educated Chinese scholars, mostly from the US, provide stimulating learning to the locals’. Gene himself migrated to the US from Taiwan. He has been an important member of the Conference Programme Committee.

‘In the past, students from top universities like Tsinghua and Peking would move to developed countries and few would return. More and more are coming back as academics with PhDs. There is a huge growth of opportunities in China. Many who return wish to be entrepreneurs, consultants, visiting faculties. Beijing and Shanghai are big magnets’, says Gene.  In many ways CICIRM plays a part in ensuring this process. Climate Change incidentally remains high on the agenda of Dr. Bingzheng. Recently the Chinese government invited his suggestions. His scope included learning particularly from European countries Climate Change related risk management practices and the evolving laws. He believes that there is room for some product innovation, particularly in the reinsurance and agriculture space. Likewise, there is a pressing need to cover risks for renewable energy and green building.

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