Stephen Perry is leader of the 48 Group and managing director of the London Export Corporation. He has been made an Honorary Fellow of LSBU Business School in recognition of his work over the past 40 years to open up trade and promote understanding between China and the West.
Stephen explains how his interest in China began, and how he has raised awareness of important issues in Chinese international relations.
"My father liked a challenge – and so do I. The story really begins in the early 50s, when the Chinese were looking to reopen trade with the West. They approached a group of academics and said, ‘Do you know anyone that might be willing to stand up to the pressure of sanctions and the boycotts and start trading with us?’ They suggested my father. He was already a successful businessman – and he probably would have made a lot more money if he’d turned them down – but he said yes. He had a curious mind and a progressive political outlook, and I think he was drawn to the idea of doing something outside the norm. He led the so-called Ice-Breaker mission to China in 1953, which played a significant part in ending the world trade embargo that had been in place since the start of the Korean War.
Making useful deals
"Looking back, I think it was inevitable that I would join the family business. My father pretty much made sure of it! He told me he had a bad heart, and needed me to help him run the business. Of course I said yes. It wasn’t until some time later I found out he was perfectly healthy. When I asked him why he’d done it, he said, ‘Well, I didn’t want you to become a politician.’ In my days as a law student at UCL I was something of a radical, and I think he worried that I might end up going down that path.
"I went to China the day after I stepped down as President of the Students’ Union. Then pretty much immediately after that I went to the US to create the first ice-breaking deals between China and the US.
People sometimes think of business in very narrow terms, but I think putting a deal together is a very creative process. You’ve got to get to the bottom of what people are really thinking, and create a solution that satisfies all the parties’ various interests.
Culture and understanding
"Tackling the cultural deficit between China and the rest of the world is a priority for me. Since the early 1990s, when I led the creation of the China Britain Business Council, I’ve focused mainly on the 48 Group and on promoting greater understanding between China and the West. We do that in a number of ways – we’ve brought troupes of acrobats here, for example, and taken football clubs and even West End musicals to China, although there were some concerns that the title of ‘Les Miserables’ was at odds with their values of happiness and harmony. Fortunately we were able to work round that!
"The group is also very active in promoting networking too. These days there are around 600 members, and they’re very much interested in understanding how China’s policies will work out. There is also a saying to the effect that if you don’t know where something has come from, you can’t know where it’s going. China is a major nation, and its influence is only going to grow. We need to understand its civilisation and its culture so we can take advantage of it, but also so that we can recognise its significance and enjoy it.
"People sometimes make the mistake of thinking I’m an apologist for China. I’m not. I’m simply trying to raise awareness and help people to better understand how many Chinese people think. When it comes to human rights, I would argue that we need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Universal suffrage, workers’ rights, equality for certain minority groups – these are all relatively recent developments. And we certainly don’t have complete freedom of the press!
Attitudes in China will change, just as they have done here. But the eventual outcome won’t be the same. It will be shaped by their history, traditions and culture, just as it has been here.
"I’ve never learned to speak Chinese. It might have made it easier to order a beer over the years, but I don’t think it’s ever stood in my way. In fact it’s probably made me better at interpreting what’s not being said, and getting to the bottom of what’s really going on. I’m always watching, always analysing, always interpreting. Body language can tell you just as much as the words that come out of people’s mouths.
Chinese influence and impact
"Everyone graduating now will be affected by China in some way. The Chinese are creative, they’re innovative, and they’re going to change the world. Just look at the new Silk Road project – that’s a $50 trillion investment, and it’s going to transform the geopolitics and economics not only of that region but probably the whole world over the coming decades.
"I would say to anyone starting out on their career now: Go to China. Travel the Silk Roads. Recognise it, understand it, engage with it. Otherwise you’re going to miss out."