Editorial Board Spotlight: Ping An’s Ben Deng gives his reading list to understand China

In this new Friday feature, AsianInvestor presents the personal side of senior executives across the investment industry. This week, we shine the spotlight on editorial advisory board member Benjamin Deng.
Editorial Board Spotlight: Ping An’s Ben Deng gives his reading list to understand China

Starting this week, AsianInvestor will feature one editorial advisory board member each month and talk about topics outside of their investing prowess. This can range from book recommendations, a day in their life during the work week, lessons in leadership, their investment idols and other aspects that do not get asked about often.

This is part of an editiorial initiative to showcase our high-profile editorial board members and introduce content that offers interesting food for thought as we head to the weekend.

We start with Benjamin Deng, CIO of Ping An Insurance Group. 

Besides being chief investment officer, Benjamin Deng likes to call himself an “amateur historian”, given his longstanding love affair with history.

“Once you read global history or Chinese history, going back to thousands of years ago, you will realise the challenges and uncertainties that we face today -- none of them is new,” said Deng.

“The basic logic is always the same.” Wise words indeed.

Deng has worked in asset management since the 2000s, and has seen more than his fair share of global economic cycles with both foreign and Chinese insurance companies.

Now as the investment chief of Ping An, one of China’s largest asset owners, Deng firmly believes that if investors want to understand China, they need to read its history. 

And when he says history, he means going back to the era of Chinese philosopher Confucius, famous for his ambigious short phrases.

A voracious reader, Deng believes that investors eager to succeed in China must know not just contemporary Chinese history but also have an understanding of Confucius classics and classical Daoism.

“That is because historically, Chinese society was developed based on Confucius, Daoism, and Buddhism - the three doctrines,” Deng said.

“Understanding what Confucius said, we can understand a lot about how Chinese society operates, and even today's government - how they run things, make decisions, and why they are different from the West,” he said.

In addition, don't forget to read books written by the Communist Party of China, he said.

If investors want to understand how the Party runs the country and the theory and logic of their actions, they need to read Party policies and historical documents.

For example, Deng said books or other publications about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s experience back in the 1960s - when he saw the tough living conditions of poor farmers – can help people understand the reasons behind some of Xi's decisions today, including the poverty alleviation policy and the anti-corruption drive.

“These are all connected pieces. Nothing comes up without a reason. So, reading these things will help us understand today's environment," he noted.

The 1960s witnessed the Cultural Revolution of China, which included a Down to the Countryside Movement, when millions of privileged urban youth were sent to remote areas or the countryside to work with workers and farmers.

Deng is also an avid global history buff: one of his top recommendations is Seapower States by Andrew Lambert, a British naval historian.

The book examines how Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic and Britain used their identities as naval powers to achieve economic success far greater than their size.

He said he enjoys books that illustrate the history of how countries are built, especially those that emerged after the barbarian invasions or the "migration period" in medieval Europe, and how culture and new ideas were exchanged between the East and the West.

The book offers a great guide in understanding the foundation of modern European political systems, he said.

“Once you know that structure, you will understand why democracy is at such a central place in their political system,” Deng said.

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