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
Getty
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt