Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Why doing business with the dragon is a Chinese puzzle

Extract from Jeff Randall in Daily Telegraph
Are other British companies likely to attract Chinese money? Indeed, has Britain fully woken up to the opportunities and challenges of China's breakneck development? When it comes to commerce and education, are we looking in the right direction?
I put these questions to Richard Pascoe, Director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University, the first overseas institution to be allowed to establish a satellite campus inside the People's Republic. His concern is that too many British businesses fail to grasp the significance of our cultural differences.
"The rewards from doing business in China can be great, but so are the risks," he said. "You don't win business by cold-calling. To succeed, you can't just fly in and out. You need to spend a lot of time there.
"You have to demonstrate that you are in for the long haul, building something to last. China's legal system has developed rapidly over the past 20 years, almost from scratch. The regulatory environment can change quickly. All of which makes durable relationships very important."
The biggest barrier, of course, is language. Mandarin has no alphabet as such, but about 60,000 characters. Worse still for the untrained Western ear, words change their meaning according to tone. Ma, for example, has several translations, including mother and horse, depending on how it is said. Get that one wrong and you can be in serious trouble.
"Overseas businesses with a fluent Mandarin speaker have a huge advantage,'' said Pascoe. ''Going through interpreters is full of pitfalls. That is where misunderstandings happen and deals go wrong. Companies need bilingual and bicultural staff."
About 50,000 Chinese citizens are studying in the UK - and the numbers are rising. Unfortunately, too few Britons, it seems, are heading in the opposite direction. Our mainstream education system is simply not equipped to offer Chinese.
A handful of independent schools, such as Wellington College and Brighton College, make Mandarin a compulsory subject for new entrants, but it is almost non-existent in the state sector. Last year, just 729 pupils sat the GCSE examination.
Of Britain's 130 universities, only about a dozen, largely those in the premier league, including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, as well as Nottingham, have centres for Chinese studies. Durham is closing down its East Asian Studies Department.
Nottingham University's Professor Shujie Yao says: "There is generally a lack of interest and understanding of China among British people. We're desperate to recruit British experts on China, but there is a shortage of talent. So we hire staff from Germany, Ireland and Australia."
Should we be surprised? Not at all. Given that 38pc of all pupils who sat English GCSE last year failed to reach C grade, and the number of schools abandoning French and German has never been higher, lessons in Mandarin and contemporary Chinese culture remain a luxury that very few can afford.