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Are the Chinese more like the British than we think?


Notes cover

This week Xi Jinping, President of China, visits the UK. There will be more pomp and pagentary than for many leaders and the visit has generated hyperbole of the highest order from the Mandarins of Whitehall.

In my new book on China, Notes from a Beijing Coffeeshop, (www.notesfromabeijingcoffeeshop.com) many of the 23 people I interviewed commented that they felt the Chinese people are more like the British than they are the Americans. We Brits have a long and distinguished history. Like the Chinese we built most of our economic influence through maritime exploits over a couple of hunderd years ago (OK the Chinese were a little earlier in the 1400’s but they still had a great tradition of seafaring for hundreds of years). We are both international traders and the silk road (now reenergised as the ‘One belt, One road’ overland and sea routes to the West) was famous for its unbroken supply chain of everything from porcelin and silk in the past to semiconductors and circuit boards now.

It might also be because in China matters of business and politics are often delivered in shades of grey and we British are past masters at that kind of stuff. If there are more than two lines we can read between them and so can the Chinese. We Brits are also good at euphamisms – Think Yes Minister. So are the Chinese.

We and the Americans speak the same language (despite Churchils’ famous “two great nations divided by a common language” comment). Many British people might argue that this makes us close, though our styles of delivery are certainly differert. History would certainly suggest closer bonds with Washington than with Paris or Madrid or Berlin. China was of course closed for many centuries which undoubtedly created distance.

During the last few years I have spent more time in China than any other international market. Prior to this, I worked extensively in North America and across most European countries. And I have to say, the similarities between my home country and my adopted one are uncanny.

Both the British and the Chinese enjoy a drink after work. We both use alcohol to break down barriers and open up conversations. Both nations share a passion for sport, the Brits cricket, football and rugby (though not much recently!) and the Chinese are avid watchers of basketball, football and a myriad of other sports. Both nations have a deep respect for family and tradition, as well as formality in so many things.

In the old days of British business, and in many parts of the country now, one’s word was one’s bond, build on the stremgth of relationships and friendship. The Chinese notion of Guangxi (relationships) and formality until trust is built, is not such a leap toward the British tradtion.

On reflection, I think we are really quite alike. One clear difference is that the Chinese seem much more motivated to speak English than we do Chinese. According to one study, there are now more people in China who can speak English than there are people in the US.

In addition one of my friends told me that “We Chinese like the American approach to money but we love the British style”! I sincerely hope Mr Xi enjoys his visit and he feels that similarity of approach to life.