Before the reader gets too nervous about the title, a Sinophile is someone who loves China.
My birthplace of Liverpool boasts the oldest Chinese community in Europe with the biggest arch – or paifang – outside of China; a gift shipped from its twin-city of Shanghai. I passed under it when I ran the Liverpool marathon in 2015. One legacy of the port’s Oriental influence is that the city became a centre for martial arts, which I enthusiastically embraced and reached black-belt level in Jiu-Jitsu.
A treasured childhood memory of my late mother was when she returned from her work as a GP on Christmas Eve, laden with presents from grateful patients, including bottles of Chinese wine. They were brightly coloured and distinctly labelled with logograms (characters representing a word or phrase). Although tee-total, she greatly appreciated the gesture.
Unlike many restaurants in the 1970’s those in China Town made children feel welcome. Chinese families would congregate on Sunday lunchtimes and the menus would be more varied and authentic. Their communal sharing of dishes underscores one of our key cultural East/West differences; that of community versus individuality. The concept of ordering a single meal all to oneself is an alien one.
I am often asked why I started to study Mandarin. One could offer the official line that in my day job as an investment manager China is immensely important in the world economy. However my initial curiosity stemmed from an historical interest in the ancient Silk Road trade route. I am also mindful of Mahatma Gandhi who once said ‘Learn as if you were to live forever’. Thanks to an initiative between Guernsey and Beijing, our local College of Further Education offers courses in Mandarin for Business with two permanent teachers on secondment. Language is the ultimate form of courtship and if you don’t know the right thing to say or do then you simply won’t get anywhere. As well as stimulating the brain it has also re-invigorated my desire to travel more regularly to the region.
Since starting the course a year ago I have passed the HSK1 beginner level exam and have joined an investment fund majority owned by a Chinese company, Zheijang Zhongnan, in the role of an independent director. The commercial aspect is a fortunate consequence but for me the real benefit has been learning more about China’s customs, culture and technological advances. It has been humbling to realise that we are quite backward in our use of technology. I am now on WeChat which is their all-singing, all-dancing app that combines many forms of services into one neat application. On a larger scale, the incredible infrastructure, bullet trains and neon-lit cities speak for themselves by way of advancement.
I was already aware of the Asian work ethic having been at school with boys from Hong Kong who were on another (elevated) academic level. My mathematician housemaster granted them special privileges as they were his favourite pupils. While I may have resented it at the time, in hindsight they were a long way from home and were frequently harassed by parents and grandparents alike demanding to know their latest test scores. In my ignorance, the only thing I learned from my classmates were a few Cantonese swear words, which I still remember.
During my first visit to Hong Kong 25 years ago, I was awe-struck by the work ethos of all age groups. It was the first realisation that the West would no longer be dominant in my lifetime. It was like standing before a human tide of intelligence and determination. I was likewise impressed by the respect of traditions and ancestor worship. Inevitably we all learn history with a home-bias that puts domestic events above those overseas. It took the adventures of Marco Polo to reveal to Renaissance Europe that wealth and culture had already been established elsewhere for centuries. While we were in the midst of the Dark Ages, China ran a highly organised and prosperous society. The term ‘Mandarin’, which we use disparagingly for bureaucrats, was an import from China. They were the cream of the country’s intelligentsia who were selected on merit by way of a series of public examinations.
Very few westerners have a grasp of how the Chinese see themselves in history. To the inscrutable Hàn rén (as the people of China used to call themselves) the last few centuries have been a blip; a temporary set-back to their rightful place on the world stage. Indeed, the very symbols for the word China translate as ‘Middle Kingdom’ implying that they are at the centre of the world. This is not to say that the country is about to embark on a series of military invasions to expand their footprint. They make the point that they have on balance been the invaded rather than the invader; brutally so when the Japanese attacked them in 1937.
We are witnessing subtle shifts in the gravitational centre of geopolitics towards the East with trade routes and transport links threading their way across the atlas. It is no coincidence that a resurgence in commodities commenced in 2016 with China’s 5-year plan for their ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy.
It seeks to recreate old overland routes linking central Asia to the Mediterranean as well as ocean-links to India and Africa. It is akin to the Gulf Stream’s convection current, distributing warmth and nutrients in its path, or in this case, wealth and influence. China is courting commodity-producing countries elegantly and considerately, in stark contrast to past western Imperialism or modern-day debt slavery. I have seen it first hand in Africa where their public infrastructure projects abound.
China now has just the right balance of centralised control and capitalism that has driven the incredible economic volte-face since the infamous famines of the Cultural Revolution. Directed capitalism is a powerful tool that taps into human motivation and innovation while avoiding some of the destructive excesses and selfishness of laissez-faire.
There are obviously deep philosophical and political differences between ourselves and China but ultimately the system appears to work well for them. President Xi Jinping is a determined leader who has led the country very ably and is renowned for his anti-corruption measures. He is re-styling the economy from an export-driven workshop into an urbanized, tech-savvy success story, unofficially termed ‘the Chinese Dream’. The latest move to reduce pollution is a case in point of their development and growing responsibility.
While I may never be fluent or skilled enough to write Chinese characters, I will continue to learn Mandarin as best I can. Technology will no doubt make communication seamless in future but there is nothing like studying a language to prove that you have made the effort to understand another person’s words and culture; an investment that I am sure will pay dividends. I very much look forward to future trips and cannot wait to soak up the culture and experiences that China has to offer. It only now remains to confess that I am a guilty-as-charged Sinophile and hope it will be a love that lasts a lifetime.
*Toby Birch is an author and investment manager who also acts as an independent director of South River (Guernsey) Limited, majority owned by a major Chinese conglomerate, Zheijang Zongnan.