A British perspective on the evolution of business in China

Jeanne-Marie Gescher

Business Leader Magazine recently interviewed Jeanne-Marie Gescher OBE about her work with businesses in China over the last 28 years.

With a legal background that developed into a foreign advisory role within the world’s most populous country, Jeanne-Marie has seen China develop as a business nation and an export location.

Can you tell our readers about your job history?

I started life as a barrister, specialising in European Competition Law.

I moved to China in 1989 after redirecting my work to the question of whether and how commercial institutions could support human and economic development (explored through roles as legal advisor for a small UN agency in Rome, as a lawyer in global law firms, and as a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University.

In 1989, I moved to Beijing, and in 1991, I founded one of the earliest foreign advisory firms in China, providing regulatory, policy and industry advice to global corporations, policy institutions and governments.

We covered a diverse range of sectors and issues, from media and the Internet; to energy, environment & climate; commodities; finance; human development (‘sustainability’); maritime futures; and geo-policy.

Subsequently, in the early 2000s, concerned that our clients had only a limited understanding of the vast changes affecting China, I added a virtual think tank whose work included the first projects on urban China; rural china; energy, environment and climate, China Africa and many others.

In 1998 and again in 1999, I was elected chair of the British Chamber of Commerce in China. I was also a Director of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia for many years (a lot of our early work was in the field of broadcast and communications, including the pioneering of dialogue platforms for clients in what was, initially, a highly controlled policy area).

From 2008, I have focused on own time on a combination of advisory work, mentoring and think tanking, with a strong focus on developing ‘landscapes’, carefully designed digital tools that support CEOs in understanding the actionable gap between quantifiable economics and qualitative human judgement, not only in China but around the world, albeit with a particular focus on those parts of the world with strong China footprints.

I am also a Senior Fellow at the SOAS China Institute, working with its director to strengthen the dialogue between academia and business.

I continue to be a member of various advisory boards, including boards of non-profit organisations such as China Dialogue and SustainAbility, and I have for a long time been an Ambassador for Leaders Quest.

The OBE was in recognition of the dialogue work that I have done between China and the UK, in the belief that out of deeper understanding comes greater opportunity and reduced risk.

Can you give us an overview of your upcoming book?

Becoming China is the story of China from the beginning of time (when history blurs with myth) to the present day (spring 2017). It is the story of one country’s pursuit of order (how can human beings live at peace with nature and in the society of others), a question that has always been important in China and is increasingly being rediscovered as being important for the world as a whole.

Each chapter takes the reader forward in the chronology while also reflecting on a particular aspect of the journey to becoming China. While thoroughly researched, the book is written as a story, for the simple reason that truth is always more than isolated facts – and in my experience even CEOs remember things better when they read a fabric rather than a set of facts.

Readers can read the book backwards or forwards, or any chapter on its own (I encourage busy executives to start with the preface and the last chapter).  However they read it, by the end my goal is that a reader should have a strong instinctive understanding of how China came to be the way it is, and why. In my opinion, such an understanding is probably the most helpful tool for doing business in China.

What is your personal overview on business in China?

Business in China is a fascinating challenge. There is a very different balance of law and policy and of competitive dynamics. There are very different expectations of business as between Chinese and Westerners.

There are also very different expectations as between Chinese working in global business on the ground in China and Westerners working in the same businesses in their home countries. By and large I would say that the process of globalisation still has some way to go within western-controlled global businesses.

Bristol’s sister city Guangzhou in southern China

What British companies have you seen do well in China?

In the past, BP was one of the most respected businesses in China, building a significant business under challenging conditions.

This was largely attributable to a global CEO who invested heavily in understanding China’s fundamentals, and a China head who not only supported him but worked very hard to bring together two very different worldviews.

Today, I wouldn’t like to single out a single business. Rather I would say that only those businesses who invest time in understanding China’s fundamentals (far deeper than economic metrics) will thrive.

Can you give an overview of your history as a honorary legal advisor to British ambassadors?

I was first appointed in September 1989 at a time when most foreigners had left and then reappointed by successive ambassadors until I felt, in 2014, that it was appropriate to give greater time to other work.

How did that role change over the years and changing ambassadors?

I grew in experience (both China and Britain). I learnt a lot from all of the ambassadors, and a lot through the experience of advising them. Each Ambassador was different, as was each of the periods in which they served.

In the 1990s, the transfer of Hong Kong was a key issue, in the early 2000s, understanding the legal mechanics of China’s mass rapid economic growth became more important, in the later 2000s, the question of the relationship of law to policy, politics and geopolicy became more important.

In recent years, the law has become a set of questions in its own right: what makes a legal system effective (not necessarily more legislation), what is the relationship of law to policy and other non-legal factors (a very important question) and what is the rule of law (the submission of a state to the law, not the efficient application of the law).

What role does the British Chamber of Commerce in China play in modern British business and export?

The British Chamber of Commerce continues to play a key role in both providing a forum for members to share experience and insight, and for building dialogue between British business and both the Chinese and British governments.

It has come a long way since its establishment and relies heavily on the goodwill of individuals who give freely of their time and expertise.

What are the future challenges for British businesses in China?

China is changing, significantly; smart business is changing with it. This will require a deeper understanding of the Party’s goals. Domestically, the change is a political shift from seeing economic growth as a political necessity to seeing political reform for the Party’s pursuit of more balanced development as the single most important requirement.

These changes have been clear for the last five years but largely ignored. Globally, China is pursuing a range of initiatives (many under the banner of the Belt and Road). These are rebalancing investment patterns, including the ownership of business. China is important whether or not one does business directly with China.