Robert de Vos (Chairman, Europe China Foundation)

15.09.2011 - Interview conducted by Sai Yang

Q) You seem to be very confident about China’s current performance and indeed its performance in the near future, but do see any issues with the way in which the country is governed?

I think the Chinese government is a very good government for the moment, they have overseen enormous developments in the country, but of course there are a lot of things the government still has to work on, for the benefit of its people. The internal system, communication, and the political structure - they (the government) know these things have to change, but because of the vast number of people living in China, they can’t change overnight; it would be complete chaos. The Chinese government is aware of this and they have to control, to find a balance, in order to keep the country stabilised - but that is very, very difficult. We need to look to the many institutions in China that seem to experience the same problems, locally and nationally. There is also a lot of corruption, but, then, we still have a lot of corruption in Europe - it’s everywhere.

Q) Many people in China, especially the younger generation are sceptical of what the government tells them with regard to their country’s performance. Is it possible that by familiarising yourself with many people from within the Chinese government, you have a somewhat romanticised perspective of China? 

I meet many people in China; young people, students, friends. I understand your question, and the frustration of many in China with regard to the slowness of social and political change, but I would suggest that letting things change too quickly would be a bad thing. The problem is that you’re dealing with 56 different ethnic groups, and everybody wants to have the best - but that’s impossible. You have to keep the country together so that it can stabilise and grow, but that means that many procedures are still not perfect, but look at Europe - Europe is far from perfect, we still have area in East Europe that are very, very poor. We are still developing - the process never stops. It is true that the Chinese government doesn’t make enough information accessible, and this had led many academics to be suspicious of the government generally, but I can tell you that if I compare the China of 12 years ago (when I was there for the first time) and the China of today, I don’t need to see the figures - it’s just reality, it’s self-evident.   

Q) By building Confucius Institutes and Chinese centres all over the world, the Chinese government seems to be trying to convey a new image of their country to people from the West. Many people are deeply suspicious of this form of soft power, how do you view it?

That’s a difficult question. I have spoken to people within the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy in Brussels, urging them to define their policy, be more open, say what they want to achieve. But because they don’t say anything we don’t know how to accommodate them better. We Europeans are, most of the time, very open and very direct in our demands. China is not like this; they don’t say anything about Tibet and the poor reportage of the issue in Western media, about the misinformation Western media projected, China just doesn’t stand up to the West. It’s a different culture, it’s a different way of looking at things, but I think it’s also because people in the government are afraid to make mistakes, they are afraid to lose their position, and are therefore very cautious in want they say a and promote culturally. This has led to suspicion in the West.

Q) What is the best way to ensure communication between these two cultures?

I think Europe has to change, Europeans have to adapt more to the idea of China, but also the Chinese should familiarise themselves with European values. Basically, we have to learn from each other, that’s why meetings like this are so important. Personally, I like the humbleness of the Chinese, but if we are to work together I think there are times, especially in business, where this behaviour has to be adapted to the more direct Western approach - but of course vice versa in when Europeans do business in China.

Q) During your work in China, what has impressed you the most?

I was really impressed when we organised a concert in the Great Hall. At 12 o’ clock the Great Hall was given to us, Tiananmen Square was closed, and we had it to ourselves - it was great! I really appreciated that as a foreigner I was able to be in the great hall, the Chinese parliament, organising a party! I am not allowed to do that here in Europe, so I really appreciated the gesture -
What a privilege!

Q) You have mentioned a number of times that Europeans have to change their mentality when they do business in China. Can you give us an example of when European attitudes have been an obstacle to business in China?

Yes! I once brought a delegation of European businessmen to China, and they were invited to go sightseeing. Many of them were not interested and though it was just a waste of time since they were here to do business. But I insisted they went because the Chinese people want to get to know better before entering a business relationship; if you don’t do it, it will be an insult. It’s about building trust - that is the Chinese way. European people want to go straight to the deal, or goal, to just do business, but when in China we have to take the to get to our host and build the trust necessary for a business relationship.