Jason Yat-sen Li: a real reflection of a global Australian

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Jason Yat-sen Li is a first-generation Australian born to Chinese parents. Born and raised in Sydney with a professional background in law, he runs corporate advisory firm - Yatsen Associates, chairs investment firm Vantage Asia Holdings, serves on the Senate of the University of Sydney. Jason also has a keen interest in politics, including running as a Labor candidate for the Federal seat of Bennelong in 2013 – a quick decision he made after receiving the invitation from then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Despite an unsuccessful election result, Jason feels that in hindsight that running for office gave him a chance to share his vision to bring positive changes to the community -  all in all, a “very challenging but very rewarding” experience. His was also an opportunity for Australians to acknowledge and  support diverse representation -  “an ongoing diversity aspiration is to have political, business and community leadership truly reflect the make-up of the Australian population”, said Jason.

From Australia to The Hague, New York and Beijing, and now back to Australia, Jason shared with Advance how he’s championing his global Australian identity.

Having held various positions in different organisations, what made you decide to relocate overseas? Could you tell us what did you do?

We always travelled as a family during my childhood. Our family, like many migrant families, were all over the world: in China and HK, the US, Canada, Singapore and New Zealand.  So I was lucky to always have had the opportunity to travel and to know a bigger world outside of Australia.

My early work overseas was preceded by study. The first time solo was when I studied in Germany for half a year when I was 22. I completely fell in love with Europe, its culture and its languages. When the opportunity arose to study in the Netherlands, I jumped at it. I did an exchange in the last year of my law degree at the University of Utrecht studying international law.  Based in Holland, I had the opportunity to interview with some of the judges at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The interview with Judge Vohrah of Malaysia was the clincher I think: he was an amazing, brilliant, handsome man with an Indian father and a Chinese mother. We spent little of the interview talking about law and most of it about where one could find decent curry chicken and spicy noodles in The Hague.

I spent 4 years at the ICTY working on groundbreaking war crimes cases before returning to Australia to work on a number of the big social political campaigns at the end of the millennium: a campaign against One Nation, and the Republic Referendum.

After that I went to study with a Hauser Global Fellowship at New York University and worked briefly in New York before returning to Australia again to join Insurance Australia Group (IAG).  It was IAG who posted me to China in 2005. 

Being an Australian born to Chinese parents, I had always wondered about China: what it would it be like to live there, what was the origin of all these peculiarities my family seemed to share with other Chinese families? Always drinking hot water rather than cold. Always taking off our shoes at the door. Fighting with friends to pay the bill at restaurants.

That posting to China kicked off a decade living and working in Beijing where my wife and I raised 3 children. I left IAG to start my own corporate advisory firm, Yatsen Associates in 2007, helping foreign firms to invest in China.

When did you move back to Australia? And what are you working on now?

I moved back to Sydney in 2015 after 10 years away. It was actually easy settling back. Australia was always home for us, although Beijing also feels like home. I guess with time, you can find a feeling of home in multiple places, something I find strangely reassuring.

I am still running Yatsen Associates with my long-term business partner and focusing now mostly on China-Australia M&A. We also do a significant amount of seed investing in Asia-focused start-ups.  I joined the Senate of the University of Sydney last year which has been tremendously interesting and in my spare time, I try to give to social and community organsiations and the political process.

What gaves you the idea of running a business to help international businesses gain entry into China’s market?

We made a lot of mistakes in our early years in China. China is an enormously complex, challenging but rewarding market and we saw an increasing number of foreign organisations wanting to invest and grow in China, particularly after the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  We had learned so much and had  built resources and infrastructure on the ground that we felt could be of value to other firms.  Providing professional services is actually a relatively straightforward and low-risk way to start a business: there were few capital investment requirements and we were fortunate to have had a great set of early clients who underwrote our first few years.

You were the Labor candidate for the seat of Bennelong back in 2013. How did you get involved in politics and how was the experience?

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I had been political since the first rise of One Nation. That was a political awakening for me. A group of us at the time formed our own political party, Unity, and campaigned to reaffirm a confident, outward-looking, multicultural Australia.  I joined the ALP in 1999, drawn to the party’s traditions of reform and fairness.  The 2013 Bennelong campaign was extremely challenging but greatly rewarding. When the Party needed a candidate in Bennelong at the last minute, Kevin Rudd asked if I’d do it. It’s hard to say no to the Prime Minister when he asks you to serve. He called me in Beijing and spoke to me in Chinese, which is a rather Kevin thing to do.

The experience was tough yet rewarding. The 2013 election was a challenging one for the ALP and we certainly felt that on the streets during the campaign. Yet it drove home why politics matters: the impact that politics has on the lives of ordinary people, the opportunity to make those lives better, our society fairer and our community stronger.  

As an Australian of Chinese descent, does your background help to advance your career?

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Sometimes.  Sometimes advantage comes from being different and distinctive. Sometimes, it can work the opposite.

In Australia, there is still sadly discrimination against minorities and I believe an important ongoing diversity aspiration is to have our political, business and community leadership truly reflect the make-up of the Australian population. Recent research from the Australian Human Rights Commission has shown that only about 4% of our federal members of parliament have non-European backgrounds, and the proportion is similar among directors of major listed companies, as well as their CEOs and senior leadership.

That said, my Chinese-Australian background, my Chinese language skills and my knowledge of Asia very often come in handy in my work. The cultural diversity of the Australian workforce is one of our country’s greatest assets which we need to learn to use and market better, particularly as markets in Asia continue to grow in importance for the Australian economy.

What did you miss most about Australia when working overseas?

So many things. The sea. Triple J. The bright blue sky and the feeling of openness and freedom you get with Australia’s big spaces and nature. How fresh, cool, drinking water gushes from our taps.  How kids can play in the surf every day and run barefoot in garden and parks.

I also missed the warmth of our people and our egalitarianism: how Aussies care mostly about so much more than money and work. There is a balance and a healthy rhythm to life in Australia that you don’t often find in other places.  We are pretty lucky and blessed and I hope we can have the confidence and generosity to share this with others.