China’s strict ‘dynamic COVID-zero’ policy, relying on lockdowns, mass-testing and border controls to stamp out COVID-19 outbreaks wherever they appear, has undoubtedly constricted the country’s economic growth and prompted uncommon displays of anti-government public dissent. Some observers are even speculating that the policy could have a greater impact on the global economy than the war in Ukraine.
The policy also appears to be having an impact on the country’s labour market in terms of Chinese professionals with adequate means leaving the country, foreigners already in China moving elsewhere, and those considering taking on a position in China now thinking twice.
However, at the top end of the country’s pharma industry, there are still several foreigners in position as general managers and presidents of leading multinational affiliates. While a small trend towards replacing expatriates with local staff may be emerging, foreign executives do not appear to be abandoning the Chinese market – the world’s second-largest after the US, with a projected value of USD 300.9 billion by 2025, and a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 12 percent – in their droves just yet.
At the Chinese affiliate of the world’s biggest pharma company Pfizer, for example, French national Jean-Christophe Pointeau actually took on the role of China president in September 2021. Pointeau, who has experience as country lead for BMS and Sanofi Genzyme in China, now also serves as chairman of the innovative industry association RDPAC and recently spoke glowingly about the prospects for innovative global pharmaceuticals in China.
“On behalf of 45 RDPAC member companies, I would say the Chinese government is firm in further expanding opening up, which means China will also attract more foreign investments into China,” reports China.org.cn. “The dual-circulation development pattern will benefit the balanced development of domestic trade and international trade, and benefit the people of China and the world.”
Other notable expats with leading positions in Chinese pharma include long-serving Hong Konger Tony Au at AbbVie, the world’s second largest pharma company in 2022. Additionally, Belgian Anna van Acker took the reins at MSD last year. van Acker has worked for MSD (Merck in the US and Canada) for over 21 years, holding managerial roles in Belgium, Hungary, the US, and Canada. Her current role as president and managing director for China based at the company’s Shanghai headquarters is not her first in China; from 2012 to 2015 she worked as head of marketing and strategy & business unit lead for the company’s atherosclerosis franchise in the country.
However, there have been some instances of foreigners being replaced by locals in top jobs since PharmaBoardroom last released a country report on China back in early 2020. For instance, German Asgar Rangoonwala has left his role as president of Xian Janssen after an almost five-year stint to take up a new position as managing director emerging markets for the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region based in Dubai. Rangoonwala’s successor is Jenny Zheng, previously managing director of Janssen Taiwan and area managing director of Janssen Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Elsewhere, Swiss national Pius Hornstein has moved to Sanofi headquarters in Paris to take on a new job as global head, global digital business units, with leadership of the Chinese affiliate passing over to Wayne Shi, a veteran of Organon’s Chinese operations who also has experience at MSD China and AstraZeneca.
Finally, Merck KGaA’s Rogier Janssens has moved on from his former role as general manager for biopharma operations in China and now sits as the company’s SVP and head of Latin America. Hong Chow, formerly of Roche, took on an expanded role at Merck KGaA in 2021 as head of China & International for Merck’s healthcare business, overseeing China, Japan as well as Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Middle East, Africa and Russia, the cardiovascular metabolism & endocrinology (CM&E) franchise, and the global business innovation team.
While the pre-pandemic trend of ‘sea turtle’ returnees to Chinese pharma has certainly slowed as a result of the country’s draconian COVID-19 response, large-scale executive flight from the country does not yet appear to be in progress. However, should such policies remain in place long into the future, this may be a significant challenge for Chinese pharma to overcome.