Generation UK – China: Creating a generation of Brits that ‘get’ China

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Since my childhood, I have always had some awareness of Chinese culture. The decades my Grandparents and Father spent in Hong Kong ingrained in them a strong appreciation for the values and practises of the Chinese people they had come to know over the years, and they passed some of that on to me in my upbringing. As I reached maturity, I gained more personal connections to and interest in the Greater China region, and, when I began my postgraduate studies, I decided to focus on China and the East Asia region.

China today occupies an increasingly dominant presence across all fields of international society. Its meteoric economic and political rise had been long anticipated, and it now stands at the cusp of achieving a global position many other states can only dream of. In recent years more open policies, part of President Xi Jinping’s Striving for Achievement approach, have seen Chinese companies and personalities emerge in international business, consumer industries, and the film industry. Companies like Huawei and Alibaba are now familiar in our mouths as household words and stories of ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ demonstrate a concerted effort to firmly establish China as a world leader, politically, economically and commercially.

The United Kingdom occupies a different, yet still important position in international society. Britain today still takes an active role in world leadership and all signs are that it intends to continue to do so. Having decided to remove its membership from the European Union, it now seeks to reorient itself as a somewhat more independent international actor, as it attempts to build new partnerships with other important actors or reinvigorate old ones.

The UK’s success in its future endeavours greatly depends on its capacity to build these partnerships and China, given its recent rise to prominence, will be one of the most important actors in that regard. If the UK is to build a lasting and respectful relationship with China it is paramount that it has skilled young professionals who understand China and, crucially, appreciate the subtle nuances of Chinese culture and practises. It must also ensure that Chinese people have a positive image of the UK and of British Culture. These two concerns should be in the foundation of any future partnership between these two countries and this is the mission of Generation UK – China.

Generation UK – China is a British Council programme which gives British students the opportunity to gain insight into Chinese culture while gaining highly useful skills and employability. This opportunity comes in the form of either a scholarship programme at a leading Chinese university, or in a 2-month internship programme in a broad spectrum of industries and occupational fields.

As a participant of the Generation UK – China Programme, I embarked on an internship with a Chinese company based in the capital, Beijing. In the seven weeks that I spent in Beijing, I took every opportunity available to me to become engrossed in the local culture and environment. By my third day in the country I had already had an experience that I will remember for some time.

While visiting a park in central Beijing, I heard a choir singing Chinese lyrics to ‘Ode to Joy’, pointing this out to my girlfriend, a Beijing local herself, we approached the choir and mentioned that I recognised the song and I was duly invited to join in with the singing. Reading German lyrics from my mobile phone, I practised the song with the choir a few times, before they asked me if I would be willing to join them in a video recording they were making to promote a concert later in the month. I agreed, and donning one of their spare t-shirts took my place in their bass section for the video recording. This is just one example of the, perhaps bizarre, yet deeply engrossing and memorable experiences I had while on the Generation UK – China programme, and however small, it still felt like I was making some contribution to creating a positive contribution to the image of Britain and the British in the minds of Chinese locals.

In the course of the internship, I discovered a work environment which was quite unlike that which I knew from back in the UK. Chinese people have a different approach to work, and in particular the work-life balance, with the concept of Guanxi felt present at all times. When working in China or with Chinese people, I learned the importance of being aware and respectful of the values that the Chinese include in both their work and personal lives, such as maintaining face and appreciating the value placed in establishing relationships that both encourage and enhance business relationships. These are just some of the ideas which the Generation UK – China is training its participants in and all are crucial to establishing good working relationships between the UK and China in future business relations as well as political ones.

Having experienced Generation UK – China first hand, I feel confident in its potential to reach and fulfil its aims and believe that it should be maintained and expanded as the UK advances towards greater partnerships with China and other entities within the Sinosphere.

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