As QF108 flies 260 weary passengers 9000km from Beijing to Sydney, I am reflecting on my experiences of the past week during a business mission to China. It’s remarkable how quickly perceptions can change about a country when you are there, in the market, with eyes and ears open and an inquisitive and respectful mindset.
Despite reported concerns that Australians are unofficially “frozen out” of China for diplomatic reasons, we secured over a dozen meetings with very senior Chinese government officials and industry association leaders who were welcoming, attentive, interested and (mostly) helpful.
While recent tensions are politely acknowledged in private remarks, there is a clear expectation that these will eventually pass and a recognition that our bilateral trade agreement (ChaFTA) is strategically important and will continue to diversify and strengthen.
However, we should not underestimate the sensitivity in China to critical, public commentary and its potential damage to Australia’s export industries.
What staggers me most about this past week is the sheer pace and scale of transformation in Beijing – aesthetically, technologically and socially. My old home suburb, San Li Tun, where I lived from 2003 until 2006, has become a very modern shopping and entertainment precinct and a mecca for young, wealthy and confident individuals. It’s clear the younger generation has taken the lead in driving the new China.
An incredible entrepreneurial spirit has been unleashed! No one better represents this spirit than my new friends and celebrity restaurant owners, Yao and Li Yang, whom we dined with at their signature restaurant: Y.
Both aged under 40, married with two children, they own nine very popular and successful restaurants in and around Beijing.
Yao is a celebrity chef; he simply oozes coolness and is revered in Chinese social media for his innovative fusion food and dedication to art. So when he and his delightful wife spent their entire evening with us – sharing their philosophies, in English, on home-style fusion cooking, their passion for importing premium quality, ethically sourced food ingredients while confessing their great love for Australians, we were humbled and deeply impressed.
This generosity of spirit was also demonstrated the next evening by a very successful Kiwi expat – Jade Grey, the co-owner of the Gung Ho! Pizza chain as well several bars and cafes in Beijing. As we enjoyed his house specials, he thoughtfully explained the mindset of the new Chinese consumer, the constant innovation and “fast following” business culture. The importance of building “hero” brands and getting local traction through the endorsements by Chinese celebrities (KOLs) and finally, how the pizza business was actually all about big data collection and application . it was astounding.
Meanwhile, Jade spoke effortlessly in fluent Mandarin to guests and his loyal staff, whom he has clearly developed and can now rely on to manage operations while he leads new growth ventures. Our experiences with Yao and Jade demonstrate that traditional language and cultural differences, with effort and time on both sides, are fusing in modern China.
I must confess I love the Australian supermarket shopping experience but what we saw and experienced from a spontaneous visit to Alibaba’s Hema Fresh Market set a new benchmark for consumer shopping. The best and freshest food and beverage product ranges from global supply chains, combining ecommerce orders, overhead grocery packing trains, time sensitive home-delivery services and cloud-based payment systems. Everything the upwardly mobile and time-poor Chinese consumer would ever want.
We saw Australian meat, dairy and wines competing head-on with the best of global brands for the discerning Chinese consumers’ attention. Safety and trust, brand recognition, attractive packaging, consumer education and competitive pricing strategies are all very important aspects for Australian brands to continue to focus on.
My perception before leaving for China was that this trip would be very challenging. It was certainly exhausting but overwhelmingly positive. Yes, the peak-time traffic was shocking, the air quality was not good and there were some frustrating moments, but I am amazed how the Chinese people don’t let this affect their cheery outlook. There was no road rage and no offence taken when we were 20-30 minutes late for a scheduled meeting due to the heavy traffic.
China is and always will be very different to Australia. Their people are proud of their unique culture, language, history.
Determined to carve out their own trends, brands and styles.
This is perhaps best evidenced by the now famous Durian pizza on Jade’s Gung Ho! Pizza menu.
Durian is a popular but very smelly Asian tropical fruit that the Chinese people now love with molten NZ Anchor brand mozzarella on pizza! This trip was food sector focused but the same rate of progress can be witnessed in renewable energy, smart cities, robotics and AI, fintech, fashion and many more industries.
My advice to Australian business leaders and investors is that now is a very good time to go to China to form your own views.
Try to avoid letting the week become too formal and stage managed. Instead, devote the precious time to getting out and talking to younger Chinese customers, suppliers and local staff, getting briefings from experienced expats, established professional advisers and Australia’s diplomatic community. Visit the retail stores and modern factories, eat locally and in doing so, get a really diverse perspective and just have a great time! I am sure your perceptions about modern China and the Chinese people will change. You will hopefully see the value in coming to China more regularly to look strategically at tailored and measured ways for your business to participate in the greatest consumer and infrastructure-led economic boom in living history.
This article first appeared in The Australian on 26 September 2018