Knowledge and Networks are the Key to Unlock British Business with China
There is an ancient Chinese proverb which very neatly encapsulates the current opportunity for UK business, as David Cameron lands in Asia: “When the direction of the wind changes, some build walls, others make windmills”. Or, as the Chancellor’s recent trip showed – better nuclear reactors and bigger airports. The point – and its relevance to the forthcoming events – is this: now is the time for the UK business community to capitalise on change and step up its engagement with China. Those that do will find their potential Chinese partners very willing colleagues.
This sense of focused optimism is timely. I’m here in Beijing with my colleagues at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business to help welcome a British business delegation, led by the Prime Minister, on a historic visit; historic in that it will unmistakably spell out the firm intentions of both the UK and Chinese governments to reinforce an enduring partnership. The sense of urgency in the Chinese camp can be felt clearly: now is the time to capitalise on this new phase in our relationship – to ensure a regular exchange of ideas and expertise for mutual benefit.
We’ve seen the results of this new approach come to fruition following the Chancellor and the Mayor of London’s recent trip to China – headlines proudly announcing Chinese investment in Hinkley Point and Manchester Airports Group, and a London base for the huge Chinese technology brand, Rekoo, at Tech City. The UK is now seen as a real and credible strategic partner to China; and judging by the tone of conversations among the Chinese business elite, we’ll see the results of this new push very clearly, and quickly.
But that’s not a sign that executives can sit back and watch the renminbi roll in. CKGSB’s alumni base makes for a good sample of the Chinese business elite’s sentiment on British business – former CKGSB students now run companies that account for 13.7% of Chinese GDP. When I talk to our alumni about expanding relations with the West – and particularly the UK – they often report a tinge of frustration with the “fly in, fly out” mode of business development seemingly preferred by their US and European partners. They say that on top of this, there’s a lack of deep understanding about China, beyond the macroeconomic indicators reported on by the majority of the Western media.
The message from Beijing is clear: the all-important political will that is so evidently present from Downing Street must be met with an enhanced commitment from Britain’s business community. As China’s GDP becomes more geopolitically and economically important, existing and future CEOs will need first-hand knowledge of Chinese cultural and political issues, experience operating in a seemingly perplexing environment, and the ability to see the corporate world from the perspective of both East and West. The truth of the matter is self-evident. If the person your board has ear-marked as a future CEO doesn’t understand China now, they’re not really going to cut it when their time comes.
There’s only so far the UK can go with its current knowledge and network base. China can no longer be approached as a generic emerging market; executives must engage in China-focused business education that provides them with a full understanding of the highly complex, nuanced approach to business. China sees the UK as a strategic, long term partner. In order to achieve this, leaders need to invest in talent – ensuring that current and future executives understand how to optimally engage with China related opportunities and challenges around the world.
One of the UK’s foremost entrepreneurs (and CKGSB alumni), Sir Tom Hunter, has launched the next phase of the CKGSB-Hunter Scholarship Programme, providing youngsters the opportunity to undertake an MBA at CKGSB in Beijing. Currently only a few thousand Brits are studying in China today. By comparison China has several million students studying aboard and has a well-established programme of investing in lifelong learning for government officials, providing their senior talent access to educational programmes around the world.
This open minded and sustained approach to learning at home and aboard – throughout careers – is something our society could usefully adopt. In fact, our place in the global race depends on it.