Apr 30, 2020|

In-depth Report: The JD Expat Experience in Beijing under COVID-19


by Brad Burgess

It’s been an interesting few months for those of us expats at JD who have decided to stay in China after the outbreak of COVID-19. Since Chinese New Year, we’ve seen some friends and acquaintances depart for their home countries, and there were certainly moments of concern while we were hunkering down in our apartments alone, particularly in the beginning. But, as the epidemic became a pandemic and as the tide of conversation with friends and family abroad began to shift, we were fairly surprised to find ourselves grateful for staying in China when initially it seemed so challenging.

JD.com has over 220,000 employees, primarily based in China. But, in terms of expats, it’s a pretty small world. I liken us to what I call the “small country culture”. Over the years that I’ve lived in Beijing, I’ve noticed how closely-knit the smaller country communities are. Friends from New Zealand, South Africa, the Bahamas, and similar nations know each other very well. They gather for regular cultural events, stay connected to their relevant embassies and build strong ties while they reside abroad. As an American, I’ve always been envious of this level of cultural identity and intimacy that my friends from these countries enjoy with each other. Having said that, I have seen a similar dynamic with my friends from the US state of Texas!

In the spirit of sharing the story of the expat experience under COVID-19, I wanted to take a representative qualitative sample of the “small country” citizens at JD.com to tell the story of what it’s been like for us, to offer perspective from a unique lens and learn a few things about JD.com in the meantime and – by extension – the type of expat our company attracts.

I’ll start with Ella Kidron, with whom I work closest. She is a senior manager in the global corporate affairs team.


Reunite with friends and family

When people in China became aware of the gravity of the epidemic that struck the city of Wuhan, Ella found herself geographically at exactly the half-way point between her home in California and Beijing. It was a moment of decision. She was just coming off an exhilarating few days in Davos, Switzerland, as part of the on-the-ground JD task force, supporting JD executives together with colleagues to ensure a smooth participation at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, which concluded on the eve of the Chinese New Year.

She shares that the airport in Zurich was the best place to buy masks for the team. But, the irony is that the news of the epidemic at that time had not seemed to reach Switzerland.

“‘Ma’am, may I know why you need so many masks?’ said the clerk at the pharmacy,” Ella shares, unable to hide her glee. “I wanted to buy 100 masks, and I realized right there that there was what was happening in China, and then there was everywhere else in the world.”

“I had planned to get off the plane in Beijing and fly directly to northeast China (for Chinese New Year). But as I read more about what was happening, part of me wondered if I should head home to the U.S. instead. I was 11 hours from China and 11 hours from California,” Ella explains. “I decided to go back to China and trust that it was all going to be ok. I was pretty nervous when I saw everyone masked up getting ready to board the plane. Some people cancelled travel to go to the next place on arriving in Beijing…but I stuck with my original plan. Even though I could have reasoned either way, I felt like everything was going to be okay.”


Ella Kidron, masked and ready to tackle the day

Ella Kidron, masked and ready to tackle the day

Ella was originally born in London, but grew up in New York and California, and is used to having to straddle time zones to find windows to speak with family and friends, especially during these last four years in Beijing.

She shares how surprisingly accessible people became: “Constant communication was really key. At first the situation was more severe in China, but then the pendulum shifted. I spoke to family a lot more than in the past. I reconnected with many friends. Nothing changed in my relationships – I’ve always been close with my family and friends, but the challenge was always finding a time to speak to each other. Before, it seemed like we were too busy. But, I discovered that during this period, people were still busy – I spent the bulk of it working from home – but that there was still more time to communicate. We weren’t all running to the next thing on our calendars. I hope it stays that way.”

She continues. “My family in the US has been doing family dance parties on Zoom. I have an 8-year-old sister. It started being about the dancing, and humoring my sister, but then turned into kind of a family reunion.”

Many people have taken the time during lockdown to learn new skills. Like many people who live in big cities, Ella embraced cooking, exercise and accidentally, video editing, during quarantine.

“I had wanted to improve my video editing skills to be able to create better social media content,” Ella explains. Multimedia storytelling is an important aspect of her role at JD.

Zachary Gidwitz is Director of Corporate Development for Euro-American Business at JD.com.


Zachary Gidwitz of Euro-American Business

Zachary Gidwitz of Euro-American Business

Zachary shares, “Almost all major partnerships that relate to JD going outward – whether laying the groundwork for our export business, setting up overseas logistics operations, or connecting our Chinese supply chain with the world’s retail platforms, sooner or later it is going through our department.”

Put simply, his primary role is that of a collaborator and connector. He is a project manager whose job is to connect the seemingly disparate pieces, align them and move them forward.

In terms of what he shares about COVID-19, he is glad that the team he is in has been busy sourcing many different departments to coordinate inventory for protective medical materials in stock. They source for medical supplies from across JD from B2B, B2C, merchants, domestic suppliers, JD Retail, and JD Health. One of the key tasks his department has been busy with is developing a standardized process for this.


Walk the road with humility

He passionately believes that expats in China share a responsibility – to set a good example. “Our actions shape the general impressions of foreigners. If we go around thinking we are all that and acting that way, it spreads.”

At JD, Zachary feels his opinion is valued. There is also a responsibility when given access not to abuse it. It’s important to maintain a spirit of humility when working in China in general, and more opportunities will come with continued humility.

His optimism is infectious. Indeed, as I was preparing his story, he sent me a text update: “Our new process for receiving PPE (personal protective equipment) requests is already online and is currently processing requests for 5 million surgical gowns, 1 million N95 masks, and 1 million disinfectant products. I’m just hoping that through such process optimizations we can help more people get what they need!”

Lastly, we turn to a colleague who hails from Germany. Alexander Kremer works as Director, FMCG Merchandising at JD.com.


Alexander Kremer of FMCG Merchandising

Alexander Kremer of FMCG Merchandising

Alexander just recently joined this team. Previously, he was Director of Strategy, Growth and Partnerships in the International division. He’s been with JD for around two years. He was first exposed to China when with IBM in 2012, after which he worked with McKinsey and Mobvoi, and studied as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

His China COVID-19 experience – as well as his point of view – is unique.

He shares: “To be very honest, initially I was concerned but in our age range, the risk profile is much lower and the overall numbers weren’t really a cause for concern. I had a sense that things were pretty much under control with the measures taken and, in particular, how people adjusted themselves quickly. My family is also here. I could’ve just gone overseas, but my spouse probably couldn’t.”

As we discussed this topic, I came to realize how very pragmatic and resilient he was about the epidemic. Like Ella, coming back from the World Economic Forum in Davos end of January, he realized he entered a “different world” when landing back in Beijing. He shared that even though there was an impression that China was inaccessible, he left China twice on business trips in February.

Regardless of the in-flight experience, Alexander found himself quarantined in a small hotel room on the return from his second trip.

“I wasn’t able to leave the airport, and then I was quarantined in a hotel for 16 days in late February. I wasn’t able to leave the room, and no one was allowed to enter. It was a very small room. All the food was what they provided – no delivery of food or parcels allowed. I had a lot of time to work.”

Though unique, the experience overall was manageable and the measures needed, from his point of view, to control the situation.


Maintain an attitude of gratitude

Yet, he still expresses some frustrations from COVID-19 overall: “Me and my spouse work from home. Of course, I haven’t seen several friends for weeks and months because of this, let alone family from home (Germany). It’s hard to get together. Friends on the west side of the city have stricter regulations. We live in Chaoyang District (in the East), so they come to us. We find restaurants to meet together but many still do not allow groups of more than two. It’s pretty limiting.”

But, overall he believes there is a lot to be grateful for.

“I think we are very lucky. Our company is very stable during this time. None of my closest got infected. Also, I spoke with a lot of friends who got laid off during this time – both Chinese and foreigner. All of us at JD are lucky as the company continues to strive and grow. The company also was fast to react and put all the required safety measures in place, including reduced office occupation, sanitizers and masks.”

In terms of what he’s learned from the experience, he believes it’s forced us to adopt new ways of living. And, learning to maintain a spirit of discipline from the Chinese is really something for others to get inspired. He’s using new services, and there are many interesting things happening.

But, what’s it like working for a Chinese company like JD?

Alexander summarizes for all of us: “I think that’s a big question. It’s exciting. It would make life much easier to be overseas or be in China but working in a foreign company. JD obviously is a very Chinese company. I guess we are all here because it’s exciting. You work with people in a different culture. You are at the forefront of where the e-commerce industry is heading. It requires flexibility and resilience to not get upset with things constantly changing. One needs to find a place to fit in. But: You get a lot of growth opportunity that you may not get in other places.”

And, it is this very experience he alludes to that keeps all the expats at JD on their toes, engaged, and hungry for more.