From the 16th to the 19th of January, I attended the tenth installment of the Australia China Emerging Leaders Summit (ACELS) in Guangzhou, China. Organised by a small cohort of members from the Australia China Youth Association (ACYA), with the support of the Department of a Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the summit brought together 90 young delegates with a specific interest in the Australia-China space. 

The summit blew all my expectations out of the water. Across three jam-packed days, we were treated to panel discussions, formal and informal networking, and dynamic activities around Guangzhou. 

Having had time to reflect, these are my major takeaways from my time at ACELS.

Develop Your Expertise, and Find New Areas of Interest 

Over the course of the summit, we were treated to several panel discussions covering a range of topics from education, to AI technology, to the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The most obvious benefit of being involved in ACELS is the rare exposure to seasoned industry professionals. At ACELS 10 we were treated to more than 20 experts in their respective fields. We heard from the Australian Consul-General to Guangzhou, Chris Halford about his personal journey to diplomacy. Raffle Chan, Director of International Business Development at WTOIP, shared his thoughts on the future of e-commerce, and the increasingly significant role AI technology will play in business in the future. Having speakers from different areas of expertise had a complementary effect on the panels, often leading the discussion to places I hadn’t previously considered.  

The summit is, by design, broad in its subject matter. I’ll admit that with a background in politics and Asian studies, I was less enthused to attend the sessions dedicated to business and pitching. But despite not having an immediate link to these fields, I found that because each of these discussions was rooted within the Australia-China space, there was always something to be taken away from each experience. 

My previous involvement in public panels of this kind had almost entirely been based in my exact field of study. However, over the course of ACELS it occurred to me that these seemingly disparate focuses are far more interconnected than I had considered, and couldn’t help but feel that the future of work is going to be increasingly demanding. Consequently, roles will need to be filled by individuals willing and capable to extend themselves beyond their immediate comfort zone. 

Expand Your Network 

The very notion of formal networking is an uncomfortable concept for some, but simultaneously it is such a vital tool, especially for young people looking to enter the workforce. The beauty of ACELS is that everybody is there for the same reason — to develop unique insights and meet like-minded people — and so that barrier of nervous formality falls away almost immediately. 

The seminars were really essential in making everybody feel comfortable. Questions were encouraged, and I felt the most engaging periods came when discussion emerged between the panelists and the audience.

A Great Excuse to Visit China 

Just in case you needed another one, ACELS is another great opportunity to get yourself over to China. Aside from opportunities for professional development, our program included a private cruise along the city’s Pearl River, and several memorable dining experiences at some of the city’s most reputable restaurants. A personal highlight was participating in ‘The Amazing Race Guangzhou’, an activity that saw us break into small groups, completing activities and exploring the city.

Of course, outside of the scheduled program, you’re free to do as you please. Many of the delegates I spoke to had given themselves time either before or after the summit to further explore the city, or to travel elsewhere. 

Find Your People

Since my first visit to Beijing as a 16-year-old high school student — through a range of personal, professional, and educational pursuits — I’ve sought to satisfy my fascination for China, and I’ve been fortunate to meet some incredible people along the way.

But I’d be lying if I said that at times it wasn’t isolating. Despite the undeniable inter-connectedness in the Australia-China relationship, I’ve always been surprised but just how small that community can feel at times. Not everybody, I’ve found, is as enthusiastic as me about discussing the potential implications of Australia’s newest China facing foreign policy development, or as eager to unpack the layered meaning behind particularly useful Chinese idioms. 

For me, the biggest take-away from ACELS 10 was discovering there is a vast community of young people, varying in cultural, political, and linguistic background, just as passionate and optimistic about the Australia-China relationship, and just as willing to contribute in their own way. 

Each delegate I had the pleasure of getting to know taught me something new. It was invigorating. In a space that is facing its difficulties from time to time, events such as ACELS provide a forum for healthy discussion and a reminder that there is a great deal of good that can come from such events.

Get Active, Be Involved 

Being a part of ACELS 10 has inspired me to be more active in the Australia-China space. Seeing the immense amount of work put in by the project team, and experiencing firsthand the positive impact that dedication had upon the entire cohort of delegates, I left Guangzhou excited to explore ways in which I could personally contribute.

If any of this sounds appealing to you, then you need not wait another six months for the summit’s next iteration, there are plenty of ways you can get involved right now. 

For those already in the workforce, The Australia China Young Professional Initiative (ACYPI) hosts regular networking events and panel discussions both in China and Australia.

Just like ACYPI, ACYA  is always open to new members, check out their website to see if there is a chapter active in your city, or university campus. 

Alternatively, if you’re interested in a position with even greater responsibility, the good news is that ACYA is currently looking for future leaders to form the National Executive Committee for 2020. 

To give you a taste of everything you could gain from such a fantastic opportunity, I spoke with Deborah Zhang, who served as the Delegates Director for ACELS 10, and is currently a member of ACYA Beijing’s executive team. 

“ACELS aims to unite and enrich a new generation of leaders, educate them on the contemporary Australia-China landscape, and foster lasting people-to-people connections. Helping put together such an event was an incredibly rewarding experience, and provided real-world professional exposure in diverse fields, from Human Resources to strategic partnerships. I was also incredibly fortunate to have worked alongside a team of intelligent, passionate and resilient individuals, who worked tirelessly and with grace no matter what challenges were faced.

Beyond my involvement with ACELS, I have been an active ACYA member for just under a year now, also serving as the Education Director for the organisation’s Beijing chapter. I can confidently say that it is one of the best organisations I have been a part of – from organising a panel on education and social empowerment, to having a discussion over hot pot with like-minded Australia-China enthusiasts, the personal and professional opportunities I’ve been afforded are immense. ACYA is an incredibly friendly and supportive community, and I would sincerely recommend anyone with an interest in the bilateral relationship to consider joining their local chapter or the National Executive.”


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Oliver Lees

Oliver Lees is a recent graduate of La Trobe University, having completed a Bachelor of International Relations with a Diploma of Languages in Mandarin Chinese. He has travelled to China numerous times for study and work opportunities. He is passionate about writing and has plans to return to China in the near future.

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