Breaking the Ice
  ·  2023-12-20  ·   Source: NO.51 DECEMBER 21, 2023

Stephen Perry, Chairman of The 48 Group Club, delivers a speech during The Icebreakers 2023 Chinese New Year celebration in London, the United Kingdom, on February 8 (XINHUA)

For the past decade, Stephen Perry, Chairman of The 48 Group Club, a London-based nonprofit business network, and Managing Director of London Export Corporation, has been engaged in promoting trade between China and the United Kingdom. In a recent exclusive interview with Beijing Review reporters Peng Jiawei and Tao Xing, Perry shared his views on the past, present and future outlook of China’s reform and opening up. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Beijing Review: Your father, Jack Perry, was a leading figure in the Icebreaking Mission in 1953, the first Western trade delegation to visit the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 amid a U.S.- led trade embargo imposed on the country. From then on, your father and you have played vital roles in restarting trade between China and the UK. How did it all begin?

Stephen Perry: A lot of work was done in the early days before I joined. In 1951, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sent an envoy to Joan Robinson, a renowned British economist at Cambridge University, and Joseph Needham, a British biochemist known for his work on the history of Chinese science. The mission was to find a person in the British business world who had the capacity to understand modern China and help restart bilateral trade.

And they thought that my father was such a person. He went in for dinner and had a fascinating conversation with the envoy, who shared with him the Chinese fable of Yugong Yishan about an old man attempting to move mountains. Deeply intrigued by the opportunity to engage in a task as ambitious, my father sold his interest in his other business and started up the London Export Corporation in 1952.

The next year, he went on the icebreaking trip to China. The year after that, he established The 48 Group Club, which was named after the 48 delegates who embarked on the journey.

My father and his colleagues were brave. They were dealing with an economic level of activity in a world far removed from what we see today, where people were still healing from the previous more than 100 years of humiliating history. There was a huge economic divide between the two countries, as well as a great deal of uncertainty, but they were trying to find the formulas for the exchange of goods and values between China and the West.

In 1972, I landed in Beijing for the first time after a long journey. I had been working in the business for about six years. So it wasn’t new to me. But China was completely new to me.

My first impression of China was how the farmland came right up to the edge of the runway. Not a centimeter was wasted on anything else. And that was an impression that was reinforced everywhere I went. It was an incredible shock for me. I’ve never seen anything like that.

The southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, back then, was just a small fishing village. You didn’t even really notice you were there. I cried a bit when I was there, as it was a very emotional moment for me, finally seeing the China I had heard about for so many years. It was the small things of life juxtaposed with the grand idea of an enormous country.

I could see all sorts of different people in front of me in China, as the effect of thousands of years of history is not the same on everybody. Some people stared at me like I was some kind of strange creature. But other people I encountered would ask me questions about British politics, and I was surprised to find that China was much more knowledgeable about the outside world than the world was about China.

It was beyond my ability to comprehend. And I began a journey of discovery of what being Chinese means. This journey is still in progress today.

Yumin Village in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in the 1980s (above) and 2018 (XINHUA)

In what specific ways, do you think, has the reform and opening-up agenda reshaped China?

The China that I saw in 1972 had disappeared by the mid-1980s. The rapid transformation took place not in central and west China, but in the eastern coastal areas. The most fundamental transformation is the modernization of agriculture, which is not just about jacking up numbers in food production, but about developing a rural life. It is about creating a home and a community for people who live in the countryside.

It goes on with the transformation of the manufacturing industry, which was powered by rural residents’ settlement in the coastal areas to produce low-cost exports.

Despite a late start, China has become one of the world’s greatest manufacturing powerhouses— all in 45 years. You had the rise of Huawei, Tencent and many other Chinese private companies, which have driven China from being the “sick man of East Asia” to being one of the largest economies in the world. 

Many people worried that China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 would lead to the country being taken over by Western companies and subsequently losing its uniqueness. But China was much better prepared than we thought. The entry to the WTO turned out to be transformative. And by the time the Americans began to worry about China, it had moved on toward being the globe’s largest innovator.

To be honest, I had no idea, in the first 20 years, of what reform and opening up meant. At first, I didn’t think it would work out. And I remember trying to grasp the fast-changing economic regulations, rules and development patterns. 

It was in the 1990s that I realized that China was in transition to something that nobody had ever imagined. 

This rapid transition meant that things that were impossible in the past started up very fast. When I pitched the idea of starting a trade on polyester staple fiber between China and the United States to my father, he said, “I don’t think you stand a chance. But good luck.” The deal was sealed the next week. 

From my personal observation, the key difference between China and everywhere else in the world is the capacity for planning. China has drawn many lessons from other countries and has incorporated these lessons into creating a distinctly Chinese model of development. 

Now, when I look at the 45 years of reform and opening up, it shows to me that the history of the world and the future of the world are being played out in China for us all to see, and that China is on a long-term journey somewhere into the next century. 

What do you see as the main global challenges China’s market now faces as it aims to become more open and connected with the outside world? How can the international community benefit from China’s opening up? 

I think the biggest issue is how the West deals with China—something that China cannot solve by itself. 

We’re blocking ourselves in the West at the moment. We’re not looking at the new China. There are some new icebreakers who have picked up that enthusiasm for change and progress, but there are others who are fearful of change, and still others who think that they can exploit the anti-China sentiment for their own benefit. 

There is a lot of criticism of China in the West about human rights. And people are attacking China somewhat unfairly over the issue of Xinjiang. China is not perfect, but just blank criticism without recognizing the dark sides of Western histories, without acknowledging the fact that China is still a developing country, is foolish. 

It is foolish because what we may lose by trying to cut off our ties with China is the opportunity to trade with and to innovate with China. China is opening up to African and South American countries. These are heavily exploited populations who have done nothing more than moving natural resources to the ports over the past centuries. 

By fostering trade relations with China, these countries will be learning from China on how to constantly move the value of their businesses up the market chain. Africa, for instance, may shift its focus from exporting raw cotton to building a homegrown textile industry. Brazilian soybeans that are being regularly exported may be increasingly processed in Brazil, which will then power the growth of an integrated industrial chain. 

If people in the West are clever, we can make the most of what China has accomplished and use these takeaways to develop our own economies. The West has to move away from the belief that somehow it can contain China. It has tried several times, yet all of these attempts have failed. 

People say to me today, “You talk about China as if it is the most advanced country in the world.” And I say it is the most advanced country in the world. The Chinese people have had difficulties. They have not always acted perfectly. But there is no country in the world that produces what China has produced and is producing today.

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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