Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 15 – The FinTech Philosopher (Srinivas Yanamandra, New Development Bank)
Srinivas Yanamandra ('Srini') is the Chief Compliance Officer at the New Development Bank (NDB), the only multilateral organisation based in Shanghai.
SY: My hair, after applying this shampoo, looks like 'duāng'!
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
Well, a big thanks to everyone who contributed on the WeChat groups about last week's episode with Emily from Sea Life. And a special shout out to Josh from the Mandarin Slang Guide podcast for his contributions. Please check out that podcast if you're interested in learning anything about slang in Mandarin, it is a really great show.
As for this week's episode, it's the product of me wanting to find the most diversity as possible for the theories. And I remember for a few weeks at the beginning of this year, I'd been using my network to try and find people from the world of banking. And it was the same story about people from the world of artificial intelligence. And at the same time, I was also looking for somebody to represent the Indian community in China. And wouldn't you know it, I found Srinivas Yanamandra, who actually ticks all three boxes. And what makes it all the more special for me is that I was introduced to him by Kiran Ragireddy in Shanghai, who has been a friend of mine since we first met in Tokyo 10 years ago. So a big thanks to Kiran for the initial introduction. This episode is diverse in another way too, it's probably the one which has the biggest contrast in terms of the content, it goes from the cerebral to the silly. Srini went from making me think deeply in one minute, to then giggling like a schoolgirl in the next.
And just one correction. As part of this conversation, we talked about the BRICS countries, and we mistakenly say that they have no shared borders, which overlooks the fact that of course China does have a border with Russia and with India. What we meant to say was that they don't have the same geographical proximity as with other groupings, like the EU or the ASEAN countries.
OF: Well, thank you so much for coming in today. I'm here with Srinivas Yanamandra. Srinivas is the Chief of Compliance at the New Development Bank.
SY: Hello, guys.
OF: And you like to be called Srini. So I think that's probably easier for everyone.
SY: Srini is OK, perfectly OK.
OF: OK, Srini, I will try my best. Let's start off by discussing the object that you've brought. So what is the object that in some way describes your life here in China?
SY: So the object that I have brought is here with me, the apple. Basically, when I was thinking about what object I should carry, I have some instinct in terms of how human evolution can be described through apples. There are three apples, which have actually led to three different evolutions in humanity. The first apple of Adam and Eve, this has led to the evolution of instincts. And then the second apple, which has fallen on Isaac Newton, that has led to the evolution of inquisitiveness. And the third apple, which we see in our hands day in and day out, the iPhone, and that is the evolution of intelligence. So I think 'apple' summarises the entire humanity since the Big Bang till today into three distinct phases of our evolution. And I think that is what I'm experiencing in China, re-evaluating myself and re-thinking about how we have evolved ourselves.
OF: Wow, well, you've already elevated that question way beyond what it was originally intended for. Tell us a little bit about what you're doing right now in China.
SY: So I work for this multilateral development bank, which was recently established, 2015. And it's called the New Development Bank. And this was started by the BRICS member countries, the five countries with the acronym: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. I work for this bank as the Chief of the Compliance division. Since the bank is starting new, we do have a lot of our clients who have to follow certain policies and procedures relating to integrity. So I do take care of some of those aspects relating to compliance in the bank.
OF: And the bank itself used to be called 'BRICS Bank' right?
SY: Yeah, people popularly call it as the 'BRICS Bank'. But at some stage in future, it may not necessarily be open to only BRICS countries. So, the actual name of the bank is New Development Bank, but it popularly goes by the name BRICS bank.
OF: Got it. And so, when did you come along to join this bank then?
SY: So I joined in 2017, it's about two and a half years now, I will be completing the first stipulated term of three years, four months from now.
OF: And so having now lived here for almost three years, can you remember when you first arrived? Like, what was the experience of you moving to China in the first place?
SY: That was a very crazy experience. In fact, before I answer, I thought, like, since I started talking, I need to make you know about a brief habit of mine. And that habit, I would try to paraphrase using a latin term, 'omne trium perfectum'. I don't know if you heard about it, it's basically "Everything that is said in threes, goes perfectly". Like, if you have to talk about the US Constitution, it talks about 'liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness'. And maybe you've heard the term 'veni vidi vici.' And our traffic signals, which typically say 'stop, look, and proceed'. So basically, I have this funny habit, and I think it will come out in most of my questions and answers, I will try to answer in threes. And coming back to your question about what is it that really went through my mind at the time of taking the decision to come to China, I think I have got three things to bother about. The family, how do they perceive it, because we never had an aspiration to work or stay abroad as a family. The second one is food, and we have got specific restrictions in terms of certain food. And about the future, because I was taking a big gamble. I was working for a commercial bank, and coming to a development bank is indicative for a banker of a big change. And the second one is, I was working for the private sector so far. And now coming to the public sector is a different mindset. And then I was working for India, and then moving to China. So again, this is another change. So I think these things were playing in my mind about family, food, future, and the switchovers that I've just spoken about. But the only thing is… the excitement, what it can bring, the role that has been offered to me; the engagement in the topic that I have researched crazily about in terms of regulation, compliance, and how it is going to help me see live in an international environment; and then the education for the kids, because there is no better opportunity for the kids to stay and study and intermingle with the multicultural environment like in China. So these three - the excitement, and maybe my engagement, and maybe the education component - I think that these have taken away or three 'F's that I had got about family, food, and the future.
OF: Nice. And so specifically with the bank, you know, how often in a lifetime do they start a new bank like this? I can sort of see why you are interested in coming.
SY: Yeah, in fact, that's what, whenever anybody asked me, I used to question them the same thing. Did you ever know how it used to look like when the World Bank was established? And do you know, what sort of things went behind when the IMF - The International Monetary Fund - has been established? So these are the things that don't happen every day. The last multilateral development bank of this size and scale has probably been established maybe two decades before. So not everyone will get a chance to really work on something so phenomenal, internationally and geopolitically. So that opportunity overrides every other concern, which probably one can have when taking such kind of a decision.
OF: And it's such an interesting combination of countries, where you have the BRICS. How would you describe the culture, and just generally working in the NDB?
SY: The BRICS is a conceptualization. Initially, in the very early 2000s, an investment fund manager has coined this term BRICS. And even the 'S' didn't exist in that time, it started as the BRIC club, for the purpose of making good investment in emerging market economies. And the 'S' - South Africa - got added later in life, in terms of I think, 2010 or so. And while this acronym was basically meant for certain other purposes, it started to catch on as a representation of the emerging market in developing countries. We don't have any kind of connections, either geographically, we are not close to each other, we don't share borders; there is no connection of language, we speak five different languages, and all of them crazily sound differently to each other; and also, we don't have any kind of cultural route or a commonality that one can expect between two nations. So it is like a completely, you can say, unknown kind of environment, and a truly, truly multicultural environment. So that is going to be a phenomenal way to think about a multicultural environment, especially for one like me who hadn't worked in such kind of environments before.
OF: When I think about it, where - you know, you described it very well - it's these emerging markets. It's like a new world order, really. This is where maybe, where people who understand the past world order, do they see the BRICS grouping as a threat of some kind?
SY: No, I think let's turn to the object once again. Now if you say, actually when we were kids, for example, when we are thinking about 'A for apple', that's how we started learning our alphabets. So when we start saying 'A for apple', in our minds, in our generation at that time, the apple is basically this apple. But now if the kids are learning the same thing 'A for apple', the probability of the image of the physical apple striking them is very low. What 'apple' that strikes in their mind is the iPhone. Does that mean this new order of this apple is taking over this world? Or is it threatening this? I don't think so. Basically this apple is the representative of that generation. And this represents the instrumentality of this generation. Maybe the World Bank is a representative institution of that generation, when the world is in need of some leadership institution to lead the development financing aspects across countries. But BRICS Bank can be considered as an institution representative of this generation, the emerging market economy forces. So if you see it that way, the question of like 'challenging' or 'taking over' or 'replacing' world orders may not exist as it is portrayed normally in the mainstream.
OF: And what was the thinking behind having it based here in Shanghai? Was it always the case that it was going to be based here? Or could it have been based in any of the BRICS countries?
SY: It could have been based in any of the BRICS countries, but the infrastructure leadership that this country has, is best poised to offer such kind of a facility for the new emerging market economy. And that's how the headquarters have gotten here.
OF: And are there any any other examples of multilateral organisations based here in Shanghai? Or is this the only one?
SY: This is the only one based in Shanghai, and we have a… you can call it a sister institution, which is the AIIB, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We are established at about the same time, and both are headquartered in China, but one in Shanghai, and one in Beijing.
OF: Oh, the the AIIB is in Beijing.
SY: In Beijing.
OF: OK. Well, let's zoom in on your particular role then. So what is it that you do, day in day out? Or maybe broadly, like what is your overall objective?
SY: So I can disclaim my role as always toying in between these three things, the compliance part, and the conduct part and the culture part. To what extent you're going to enforce compliance? Because compliance is always like, you have a dictum and you have to enforce the dictum. The dictum is given either by itself, or it is given by the market entities. And then there is the conduct, a conduct needs to be imbibed with advisory from the compliance division, so you have to advise people on the right conduct. And then over a period of time, you don't need to do anything, your culture evolves automatically. So this is the toying that we do, day in and day out, between compliance and conduct, ensuring that these two things will evolve the organisational culture in the long run.
OF: So then let's talk about an example then. Have you come across any particular examples when it comes to compliance that you've had to get involved in?
SY: It's not necessary that I should gather some examples of what my work in the NDB is. But there is a great amount of learning because of working in the NDB, that we had an opportunity to observe what sort of developments that are happening in and around. But in my role in terms of thinking about compliance and conduct, we generally focus upon what you call anti-discrimination, where you focus upon harassment, for example, and try to ensure that the workplace is free of harassment. That is a very mundane kind of a role that a compliance officer carries. But when you zoom into artificial intelligence, this same harassment can take three different forms. It's not necessarily harassment by individual to individual, it could be harassment by machine to individual. So it could be like an algorithm grooming. So when you're watching certain YouTube videos, and there are certain algorithms, and your kid is getting groomed, by the way and the history of those videos he is getting shown. So it could be a kind of a pseudo kind of harassment that the machine can induce into you.
OF: When you said the phrase "harassment by machine to human" like, that's where I think about the people who are running their lives based on the notifications from their phone. And then as you say, like, you have people who are watching a YouTube video, and then the algorithm takes them into more and more extreme, extreme, extreme videos. And then you are actually making people into more extremist thinkers.
OF: And that's a machine-learned harassment.
SY: Yes. Or there could be harassment, which is by person to the machine as well. Like, we can talk about Siri, we can talk about Alexa. It's not necessarily that when you're talking to Siri or Alexa, that every person is polite, and every person talks only about things that they want. But they do have Siri, they do harass Alexa. So that harassment is from person to machine. And then we haven't yet seen - I think this is going to be the word we are going to enter into shortly - harassment of machine to machine. So we really don't know when an autonomous vehicle is going to try to talk to - say, for example - an IoT device connected to your home. So what sort of behaviours these machines are going to exhibit to each other? So that is going to be another dynamic challenge that we are going to come to. So a mundane job like a Compliance Officer, with the ethical principles that we talk about, which are never talked about openly, are becoming centre stage of discussion. Because when the machines are coming into such kind of prominent roles, how they interact with humans, how humans are perceiving them, and - in a short timeframe - how machines are going to interact with each other. So that is going to create a new set of challenges for compliance and conduct, and even ethics as well.
OF: That's fascinating and scary at the same time. But you're talking about it right now in the abstract. Like, this is something which you're just interested in, and you're studying right now. There's nothing right now that you're seeing, especially in the bank, right?
OF: OK. Well, that's something to watch out for in the future.
SY: I think it is not necessary that I would consider this something of the future. When people talk about technology, they always say that it is about the future. But to some extent, my learning so far, and my reading so far, is not about technology of the future, but it is about mythology of the past as well. What we always think is, what we are witnessing is something new. But it is not so. In fact, the same questions that we have, that we are trying to articulate now, having evolved in different phases, and in different contexts, even in the past as well. Say for example, if you want to understand compliance basically, people talk about norms. So if you want to understand about norms, you need to go a little further into the past, and try to see how humanity has first evolved. So what has happened when humanity tried to convert itself into societies. And if you want to understand how humanity has evolved, you need to go back again, to the evolution of the universe itself. So how the universe has initially started, and what actually led to the development of humanity. Our span of existence on this planet is very miniscule. And it is within this span, we now invented humanity, we now invented societies, we now invented norms. So the point is, when we're talking about technology, we tend to behave as if this is the world we live in. But this is not the world, this is just the world of the last 200 years. The world is basically the 13.8 billion years which we have crossed so far. So if somebody needs to understand what is going to happen to technology in the future, what they need to do is to look back beyond these 50 years that we're proud of, and then try to see how these norms originally got evolved. Then you'll find most answers. And that's the reason I mentioned that, when somebody talks about technology and the future, the only answer we need to say is that it's not about the future, you need to see what made evolution possible so far, which will make or break the evolution of the future as well.
OF: My immediate reaction to hearing that is, do most compliance people think like you?
SY: Not really.
OF: No. This is an interesting angle, you do link a lot of your thoughts - when it comes to everyday, and you call it 'mundane' compliance - you link it to your cultural history.
SY: But what I think has helped by my stay in China is to know that these things are not unique to any country as such. So what I have heard in India - we call it द्वैत [dvaita] - द्वैत [dvaita] is basically dualism, it is not necessarily that we are one, it could be like a replica of several things. So it is like me and the other person, me and God. So that द्वैत [dvaita] as a dualism theory exists in a very important way in our cultural writings, scriptures. And in Chinese - in fact, I keep hearing this from a couple of other friends when they talk about this - they also say that in Chinese Confucianism - or maybe in Chinese culture - there is this concept of 阴 [yīn] and 阳 [yáng], which is basically again, the concept of dualism. So, yes, compliance is a little mundane. Compliance can be made interesting to several things in life. The biggest learning that I had in China here, is that it is not necessary that it is your culture and my culture. If you go back into history, then we try to understand that we are one, or we together at some stage. And our beliefs would have evolved at about the same time, in different cultural or country contexts.
OF: Yeah, especially when you see it in terms of you said, which is… it's not going to be about one culture versus another culture, it's going to be about a person versus a machine. And in that case, when you're comparing to a machine, then all of us humans are the same, right? It doesn't matter about what kind of culture we come from.
SY: The more your interaction with machines is going to start, the more your understanding of yourself comes in. So I say this journey for me is from artificial intelligence - from 'AI' - to 'Who am I'. So, the AI, if somebody is going to embark on the journey, he will end up ultimately to the question of 'who am I'. So then if you understand yourself as human, then you understand what is the other distinct entity called 'machine.' I think that is the seed of thought which has sparked here, especially in this country, because there is a lot of interaction with machines, a lot of interaction with technology. And suddenly you will get a doubt as to "Are we going to be like, machines are going to take over human beings?" Then the fundamental question is "But do we know what is being human?" And if you understand that, you will understand all the things that we have spoken about just now, how we have created institutions, how have created norms, how we have created compliance. Then you will have a fascinating journey into the machine world. So then you will be equipped to understand how machines might be here, because this is going to be history repeating itself for the future.
OF: Right. Well, thank you so much, Srini. I mean, that's a fascinating topic. I mean, you've you've taken it from compliance, to norms, to technology, to ethics, to what it actually means to be a human. I didn't expect to cover this with somebody who had a title 'Compliance Officer'. But I really appreciate that. And thanks so much for for sharing some of your views with us. Let us move on to Part 2.
SY: Thank you. I'm excited to do that.
OF: What is your favourite China-related fact?
SY: This is one of the questions people keep asking me when they come to China, and they say "Hey, can you write my name in Chinese?" I think that is the most interesting fact. I always try to tell any visitor who comes to China, you can't write your name in Chinese at all. Like what we do in other languages, we talk about alphabets. But Chinese doesn't work on alphabets, Chinese works on characters. So if I say for example "Srini" there is no way in which you can write 'Srini' in Chinese. It is like mathematics. So for mathematics, how can you write 'Srini' in mathematics? So I keep asking the question to people saying, "Well can you write 'Srini' in mathematics?" No, because you have got nine characters which can represent the entire mathematics. And in those nine characters, you can't create a combination called 'Srini.' And that's the most, I think for me, is an eye-opener, and the reason for shutting down my Chinese classes.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SY: I don't know whether you've ever heard that word, it's 'duāng'.
SY: D-U-A-N-G, 'duāng'. Actually in 2015, Jackie Chan - when he was doing a kind of an interview for a shampoo ad, it seems - he simply said that "My hair, after applying this shampoo, looks like 'duāng'!" That word has rocked the entire internet, went viral, and there were like 8 million 微博 [Wēibó] hits that have occurred, because there is no word 'duāng'. And everybody started now using that word, saying "Did you 'duāng' this?", "Oh, this is 'duāng' interesting". And the influence of this word has been so immense that they have created a new character to say what 'duāng' actually is. It's a very funny story that I heard, and I tell it as a kind of a favourite word. 'Duāng.'
OF: What's your favourite destination within China?
SY: I would always recommend to people to definitely visit the Three Gorges Dam. That is a phenomenally, infrastructure-ally, technologically and engineering marvel that one should watch when he has been in China. So, alongside the dam, you created a kind of a ship lock system. But when I saw it - literally the water getting poured, the door getting closed, and the water getting poured inside - and the ship literally gets lifted up, and then moves on to the second stage, third stage, fourth stage. The three-hour journey is like a journey of a lifetime, when you're getting transferred from this side of the dam to the other side of the dam.
OF: Very good. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SY: I would miss the least is basically my passion for watching movies, mostly Telugu movies. And before coming here to China in 2017, in 2016 in India, we have a 'book my show' app where you book your movie tickets, and I got an email in January 2017, congratulating me for the number of tickets I purchased, which was around 120 tickets for the year. So that is completely frozen for me. So I think I'm going to enjoy that when I go back. That's the first thing. And the second thing is, if I think about what I will miss, it's basically the walk to office. The most luxurious thing that you can have, you can walk to office and go back to home on foot. So I think that is what I might miss, if I had to work any other place.
OF: I think you do have a luxurious situation, even for China standards. Like, not many people walk to work in China.
SY: Maybe, yeah.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SY: I think the only thing that surprises me is the precision. There are a lot of things I had an apprehension about a country like India to some extent. When we were taught in our childhood that one of the reasons for the slow pace of development in India could be the population. And with population there are problems of coordination, there are problems of policy formulation, and there are issues in terms of implementation. So we ascribe some of these pitfalls to population. But coming here, I really understood, even with population, you can have a lot of coordination. And there is a kind of method to madness that leads to perfect precision. That fascinates me very much. Any single thing that you do, there is a kind of an order. And that is what fascinates me about this place.
OF: And do you think that could be translated back into India?
SY: To some extent, we started doing that, because the enabler is being digital. So I think that there are pockets where we have achieved that. And the only reason for me to be very bullish is about the technology.
OF: What is your favourite place to go, to eat or drink or just hang out?
SY: So the best place to hang around is always The Bund. And once you go and take a walk in the evening, I think you really can't stop admiring the other side, how it has been created. And the phenomenal fact is that it has been done in the past 20 years.
OF: Yeah. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SY: The WeChat sticker is a cute little girl. And she exudes a kind of weird expression, like "Oops", kind of a thing. And that is the most needed in the messaging platforms, especially when you do those silly mistakes, actually.
OF: This is actually one of my favourites too.
SY: Is it?
OF: Yeah. She has such a unique way of contorting her face.
SY: Yes, yes.
OF: What is your favourite song to sing at KTV?
SY: I think people will ban me if I go to KTV, and start singing. So don't venture into that.
OF: Do you sing at all? Like, when you're whistling down the street, or..?
SY: No, when I started in fact, I didn't do much karaoke. But I happened to do karaoke a couple of months ago. And people started thinking that the machine got corrupt, because they said "When we started doing the karaoke a few weeks before, it was working fine". And when I started singing, they said "Why is this voice not getting picked up?" And they all got surprised as to why this is happening. Then they understood that it is not a problem with the machine. So they let the individual go out of that room.
OF: I'm trying to link this back to what you said before about machines harassing people. And people…
SY: Maybe it is 'people harassing machines'.
OF: The final question, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
SY: So basically, if you have WeChat, you have broadly everything in there. Yeah. Mostly, I think I'm a little weak in terms of tracking the local news. But things of my interest, you will always have WeChat groups. You have got different groups of communities, as such. So I think the messages get floating around.
OF: Yeah, you're not the first person to say that. It's how we all work here in China, right?
OF: Well, thank you so much Srini, it's again a pleasure to have you here. I have one final request. And that is for you to tell me out of everyone who you know in China, who should I interview next?
SY: So I have got one of my Vice Presidents, Mr. Leslie Maasdrop. I found him to be the kind of person who could actually have some of the insights that you're looking for, especially for the country, about the background of a person, and how drastic differences you can see a person can undergo over a period of time in terms of the positions that he gets into. So I think it would be my privilege to introduce him to you.
OF: Thank you so much, I really look forward to meeting Leslie
SY: Fantastic, and I wish you all the best, and thank you so much.
OF: So the images from today's chat are all on social media. There is Srini and his object, the apple, and the three ways in which the apple describes the development of mankind. The Latin phrase which describes the Srini's habit of talking in threes, is 'omne trium perfectum', I posted a graphic about that too, just in case you also didn't know how to spell it. Apart from that, there is his favourite WeChat sticker, the little girl with the 'whoops' expression. To me, she's saying more than just 'whoops', but I can't exactly put into words the full extent of the emotions that she's displaying. To see what I'm talking about, as always check out @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram and @mosaicofchina on Facebook, or add me on my Wechat ID: mosaicofchina,* and I'll add you to the group there. What else? There's images of the BRICS countries, and the New Development Bank. And there's also a graph showing the population of China versus India. There's also classic photos of the Shanghai Bund, the place that Srini mentioned as his favourite place to hang out in China. There are photos from the lock alongside the Three Gorges Dam. And of course there is the character for 'duāng,' the word which was totally made up by Jackie Chan. I researched this and it was from way back in 2015. So please let me know if this is something you're still either using or hearing in China in 2019.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, extra editing support from Milo de Prieto, artwork by Denny Newell, and China support from Alston Gong. I will see you next week.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.