Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits?

Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why?

William Vanbergen came to China at the age of 21, just after he finished his university studies. He came with the intention of creating something: a business. He had saved £6,000 selling double-glazed windows back in England, and using that he started a little company in Guangzhou, China’s southern metropolis.  

Ten years later, Vanbergen’s company, which helps Chinese children apply to Britain’s elite schools, has offices spread across China as well as its own schools, the latest of which saw a $100m investment. The entrepreneur has been witness to China’s economic phenomenon and the resultant growth of China’s middle class. “I’ve seen a 25 to 30 per cent increase year-on-year in demand for overseas education”, he reports.  

And he’s seen a rise in expats in his adopted home of Shanghai, in young plucky Brits who’ve made the journey to the East, to pursue careers and entrepreneurial ambitions. “You feel the buzz here, there’s an energy in the air. England is dreary and slow, and you need a lot of money [to start a business]. Everything’s been done. But where there’s change, there’s opportunity”. 

Many have made their way to the Oriental giant over the years. But whereas those foreigners who achieved fame and fortune in China before sometimes stumbled into success, either by accident or serendipity, the intentions of those who come now seem qualitatively different. They chase success, with deliberate strategies.  

Take Jamie Bilbow, for instance. The 25-year-old is a TV chef in China, after using smart marketing, "buzz"-generating tactics. I wrote about his story in the Independent. Such tactics included entering a televised Mandarin speech competition, and using a three-wheel bike to sell falafels to the Chinese public. The latter was a deliberate ploy, as the sight of the Brit calling out for custom in the traditional Chinese manner drew large crowds and national media.  

Or Paul Afshar, who came to Beijing in his mid-twenties in 2011, started a business and has now sold the business in the past month, in two brisk years. His company specialised in selling air pollution protection products, a massive growth area in the smog-plagued capital.  

There are countless examples, with more still coming to study Chinese or to take up internships. Alastair Douglas set up Tic Two, a company that provides internships in China. The 26-year-old Scot (another entrepreneur) says demand has come from both sides, as Chinese companies are hungry for more international staff, and students from western countries increasingly value knowledge of Chinese language, culture and business practises. 

With a tough jobs market for young people and the general misery of austerity, Britain in the past few years has felt like one long, collective sigh. But those who journey to the East can find themselves leapfrogging a few rungs on the career ladder, fast-tracked into positions simply unavailable back home.  

"It took me a few months of networking and an unpaid internship at City Weekend before I landed myself the Managing Editor role at Talk, the oldest expat magazine in China”, says Nyima Pratten, a 25-year-old with an interest in media, and a graduate in Management and Chinese. She feels Shanghai has more of an entrepreneurial spirit than Beijing (the two rival cities have vocal and loyal supporters) and that you have to do a certain level of hustling to get jobs, which may not be advertised. “People are very driven here and individuals are able to network and forge relationships with high level industry players in many social situations”, she explains. 

UK and Chinese business relations saw a boost recently with the much-publicised visit by George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Announcing new visa regulations for Chinese visitors, and helping to secure investment for Britain’s nuclear industry and Manchester airport among others, the two were jovial, light-hearted and pandering to their Chinese audience. Some saw it as kowtowing and obsequious but their visit seemed to signal an increased, if a little eager, determination to encourage Chinese-British trade.  

Does it herald a British "pivot" towards the East and especially China? America, South-east Asia and Australia now increasingly shape their economic, foreign and military policies in China’s direction. Time will tell exactly how Britain will deal with the ambitious outbound expansion of China’s corporations and what influence we might see domestically from the Brits in China who eventually ping back home. 

Just in case you may think setting up in China is all-too easy and the streets are paved with gold, fair warning. “The first 10 per cent of establishing a business in China is the hardest”, says Chris Dobbing, a 24-year-old entrepreneur based in Beijing. “Registering a business in the UK takes maybe 10 minutes to do online, but it can take months in China”. Chinese business practises can also be ruthless: where there’s opportunity, there is also rapid copy-catting, suppliers who will think nothing of upping costs if they smell a client’s success and unscrupulous business partners.    

But the rewards are manifest. “Forget the BRICS”, says Dobbing. “It’s all China. In the last few years, China’s basically added an India to its economy. But we need much greater engagement. Right now in the entire UK parliament, there’s only one person who speaks Mandarin”.   

British companies have taken notice. The British Chamber of Commerce in Beijing has seen a 120% uptake in applications since 2011 for their initiative which helps British companies to establish themselves in China. The number of visitors and residents to Beijing and Shanghai has seen significant increases in the past few years. Exports have recorded a 16% growth from 2012 for the first six months of this year.  

Do you care about any of this? Does any of this genuinely matter to you? Of course China is geopolitically and economically vastly important, but how can China help you, right now, sitting there reading this article? Well, it will help if you think of "China" as an idea.  

But first, what’s the value of this story of entrepreneurs in a far-flung locale? It was Rolf Potts, the travel writer, who noted that expats' experiences often don't filter back home because some expats never return, or if they do, don’t tell their stories.   

But in this global age, with abundant publishing platforms and the ease of communication, it is important that overseas Britons not only lead the way, but their stories are told in order to better understand how markets and societies evolve.  

Websites like qz.com, catering to internationally savvy business people, and primarily designed for mobile and tablet users, have refocused their reporting on "phenomena" rather than traditional "beats". 

What this means in practise are readable, angular stories exploring how, for example, the health-conscious taste for coconut water  is outpacing palm plantations' supply in south-east Asia. And what "Japanese maple trees tells us about the US economy". It suggests that people want to know how trends connect and how individuals' habits have effects across borders.     

Those young entrepreneurs now achieving their goals with the stimulating aid of a new emerging market might indicate a small but growing trend whereby migrants from Britain, America and European nations grows from a trickle into a stream, all flowing to emerging economies. Appetites for their 'exotic' stories and international phenomena can only grow if increasingly people decide to move.  

And what is there to learn from China, as an enterprising idea? In China, and much of Asia, there is a culture and speciality of small business. There are grandmothers who sell yoghurt out of ice boxes on the side of roads, students who turn their dorms into warehouses selling products on Taobao (China's ebay), and rural migrants who set up stalls, or if they are families, restaurants in the big cities. It makes the idea of starting a business much more humble and homely than the den of dragon's sorcery with which Britons associate it. 

And perhaps those Brits who journey over start noticing the pluck of those rural migrants, or more likely, they hear about the successes of others and want a piece of the action. For those of a more romantic bent, an element of manifest destiny, a small part that has enveloped the idea of adventure must take root - "Go east, young man. Go east and seek thy fortune".

 

Boris Johnson on a recent visit to China. Photo: Getty
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle