Saturday, 31 August 2013

An Interview with Asia Pacific Access - Mission, Philosophy and View about Chongqing

 Interviewee: Shelley Warner

By Chongqing Currents
Issue No.: July-August, 2013

What is Asia Pacific Access? What are its purpose and task? Why did you found it?

We are a small diversified consulting company; I guess that would be the best way to describe us. We currently have three branches around China: Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing. We founded the company because each of us had a very strong interest in China and wanted to act as a bridge between China and the West. We saw so many misunderstandings and miscommunications, both ways: between foreigners and Chinese and the other way around and felt we knew a little that could help dispel some of those misunderstandings and miscommunications. We also wanted to help foreigners enjoy China – rather than finding it intimidating

Our roles are several, Development Assistance used to be one of our main roles – and we still do a little development assistance work with agencies like the Asia Development Bank, but our work with the bilateral donors has virtually vanished  as most of them have ceased giving developmental assistance support to China given China’s rapid economic and social development.

Orientation is another main role – we have around China a team of people in over a dozen cities, who work to help make the experience of foreigners in China a smooth one. This team comprises mainly expats who have already settled successfully and happily into the city they are orienting new comers to. They not only work with local realtors to help find a home, but also give advice on schooling, explain medical facilities; introduce them to expat and local networks in areas of similar interest and we also try to open the veil to show to expats coming to China what an exciting and interesting place it is

Cross Cultural training is another of our main tasks.  We have been running these courses in China now for 20 years. China has changed in that period and so of course our training content and focus has also had to change. We run these courses for foreigners and Chinese working in Multinational corporations; for Chinese and foreigners working in Chinese corporations and also for Chinese going abroad, whether on short term visits or to work in Chinese invested or foreign owned companies abroad for a longer period of time.

How about Asia Pacific Access’s development in China, why did you choose to enter Chongqing?

We started small. In the first few months just myself and a Chinese colleague, who later became our Office Manager, in 1993 around our dining table at home A few months later we had a legally registered Representative Office and a real office address near Ritan Park in Beijing. In those days it wasn’t easy for small foreign consulting companies to set up business in China. So a representative office was the way to go, representing other companies and our own small Australian company to look for business and trading opportunities, mainly at that time between China and Australia. Through helping foreign business find opportunities in China to invest, we also saw that there was a need for helping those foreigners who came to work in China, to adjust to living here. In the early 1990s, Beijing wasn’t as sophisticated/cosmopolitan a city as it is now. There were only a handful of places where foreigners could live, outside those few hotels authorized to receive foreign guests, one Western standard supermarket and not much of a foreign community. Newcomers found the city quite intimidating. We set up a Wholly Owned Foreign company as soon as we were legally able to in 2001 and in 2004 set up our Branch Office in Shanghai to meet the very strong demand for our services in Shanghai and its neighboring provinces for our services. I think it is safe to say that we were the first genuine relocation company in Beijing –we were not a moving company, not a realtor but a company whose focus was on people.

Why did we choose to enter Chongqing?  A whole range of reasons. It was clearly a fast growing city, with some very substantial foreign investment coming in but at the same time it wasn’t a very easy city for expats to live in and for foreign businessmen to handle. We saw a niche opportunity for our services. We try to help foreigners and foreign business adjust well to their new Chinese environments.  While Chongqing is moving fast to become an international city, and its progress in infrastructure development is remarkable, I would even say unbelievable – the “soft” side still has a way to go. Little English is spoken; contact with “western“ ways of doing things is still relatively new; the opportunities for enjoyment and interest here are vast, but they are largely invisible or non-existent to the average expat.

It was our vision of the future of Chongqing which brought us to Chongqing. In many ways Chongqing is a more attractive choice for certain sectors of incoming foreign direct investment (FDI) than Beijing, Shanghai and even Shenzhen. Ford Motor Corporation’s decision to place its largest production plant in Chongqing is an example of the economic rationality of investing in Chongqing.  Our direct commercial experience though our Beijing headquarters and Shanghai Branch is that those cities are becoming less competitive in many industrial sectors because of higher wage pressures, office, industrial estate and housing rentals and living costs. Under the 12th Five year plan improved rail, expressway and waterways improvements are completed or well underway. For export purposes, this transportation investment is giving Chongqing cost effective access to the Beihai sea port and Southeast Asia through Vietnam and Myanmar. Furthermore Chongqing has an abundance of industrial parks.

So as we anticipate a growing inflow of FDI to Chongqing we see a growing need for our relocation and cross-cultural training services in this remarkable city.

What role does the cross-culture training program play in a transnational company (TNC) or institution (TNI)?

To put it simply, the expatriate and her/his family assigned to Chongqing by a TNC or TNI has four choices in how to respond to Chongqing’s business and social culture:

(i)  Retreat into an expatriate ghetto existence;
(ii)  Roll with whatever happens without understanding why it happens;
(iii)  learn what personal and institutional culture is determining what happens, which makes it easier to roll with it; and
(iv) analyse what behaviours of the Chinese people and institutions s/he works with that s/he can influence.  The outcomes generally will be reconciliation between Chinese cultural norms and the expat’s cultural norms.

To keep it simple, Chinese working with expatriates in a TNC or TNI, or dealing with expatriates through supplying goods or services to a TNC or TNI have choices (ii) to (iv).  For both expatriates and Chinese it is mastering  (iii) and (iv) which will achieve efficiencies in the work place and better cooperation across cultures socially.  Our cross cultural training is aimed at passing on skills in (iii) and (iv).

Therefore our training in the first place helps to develop a better understanding of the other culture and ways of doing things. There is a tendency amongst some foreigners assigned to work in Chongqing to say “Why can’t the Chinese do things the way we do”. So we explain how different social development in different societies produces differences in behaviour. We also look at value systems and analyse why China’s economic development and its social and political history have created institutions with a way of management and business which is very different from a western way. We try to develop an understanding and appreciation of the other side and this is the first step towards reducing conflicts. We look, for example, at notions of “face” of “guanxi” and of honesty

A foreign manager needs to understand “face”.   While his/her Chinese counterpart needs to understand how important it is in a Western context, to speak your mind, to raise your opinion even if it is in contradiction to that of their boss . Other examples are running a meeting; the importance of protocol in seating at a banquet

Is surviving in China as an expat more difficult than in other countries?

Yes and No. China is actually rated as one of the more difficult countries for expats to live and work in - The Global Relocation management company, Brookfield’s 2013 Global Relocation Trends Survey,  has listed China, Brazil and India, in that order, as the countries with the most Asia Pacific Accesschallenges for international assignees.

For China and India, cultural and family adaptation and quality of life issues were predominant. I can very readily see those difficulties, but a personal and professional relocation and cultural training program can alleviate those problems.  And there really are a lot of positives which too often aren’t recognized about China:  Chinese people are very open and welcoming. They are not closed to contact with foreigners i – this opens great and rewarding opportunities for foreigners willing to reach out. And at the same time, China has such a rich and varied history and culture - there is so much to explore and understand. If I was to compare China with my country, Australia for example: Australia is a wonderful country with warm and friendly people, but they are actually not as friendly or as hospitable as the Chinese. And while we have wonderful scenery and a relaxed way of life in Australia, there is a limit to the cultural and historical activities you can explore. I know where I would rather be J

Is settling happily into Chongqing as an expat more difficult than in other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai?

At least two categories of expats are likely to find settling into Chongqing as easy as settling into Beijing or Shanghai.  One category is the expat that has worked previously in China or elsewhere in those Asian countries whose national cultures have not been heavily influenced by the cultures of European colonial powers that administered them for many centuries.  The other category is the younger or middle aged expat whose academic training included a lot of focus on China and especially if it included learning Chinese. These, however, are a minority of the expats and their accompanying family members whom TNCs and TNIs assign to Chongqing.

The majority of expats coming on resident visas or even on business visitor visas to Chongqing will not find their living adjustment as easy as settling into Beijing or Shanghai. That is true, but, these days, Chongqing is really a far more interesting city than either Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing and Shanghai are almost too comfortable. You can just about live in those cities as you would in most other modern Western cities. But then why come to China if you’re not going to have new and different and challenging experiences?  You can settle happily into Chongqing but you do need to have an adventurous spirit in Chongqing if you are going to really enjoy it.. Surviving in Chongqing shouldn't be a problem – there is good housing; an excellent international school; a good range of shopping, an active expatriate association, Chongqing International Women’s Group, but what we hope to see is expatriates thriving in Chongqing. Really enjoying it
Please talk about Chongqing, what do you think of this city?

To be frank, I think Chongqing is an amazing city. We first came to Chongqing in 1978 and it was extremely poor. It had gone through a very tough Cultural Revolution and the city felt and looked rather battered, tired and depressed. There was one bridge across the Yangtze; very few big buildings; many wooden houses clinging to the rocky outcrops on the peninsula; many “bang bang” men. Most of the economic activity was related to Chongqing’s position as a port on the Yangtze. Today, the infrastructure development, the bridges, tunnels, new highways, the extraordinary new buildings and the night views – take my breath away. But such fast development must also be a big strain on people who live here and those who have come from the countryside to build the city. Maybe it has happened all a bit too fast. Such a big fast moving city may be quite overwhelming even for Chongqing people and for newly arrived expats. It can take a bit of courage to get used to, to feel comfortable in .But there is a lot to do here and our company wants to be able to show expats living in Chongqing how interesting it is.

From the point of view of history – Chongqing has a long history, dating back to the Ba civilization, over 3000 years ago and the Three Gorges museum has some interesting exhibits from that period; while the Immigration Museum in the Huguang Guild describes the mass migration of people from some eastern provinces to Sichuan in the early Qing dynasty (some three hundred plus years ago) and the impact that had on Chongqing.

Chongqing also has, for expats, interesting more recent history, which can easily be explored: Chongqing was the wartime capital of China for almost a decade and suffered years of terrible bombing during the anti-Japanese war; it was also the site for United Front co-operation between the Communist party and the Nationalist Government – with many interesting stories to tell there. There are museums and old sites which can be visited and local historians who would be happy to describe the history. Many foreign countries had their Embassies here in the middle of the 20th C, when Chongqing was the capital of China – they moved inland from Nanjing together with the Nationalist government of the time. The American presence here was also very strong: General Stillwell; the Flying Tigers. But, apart from history, the cultural side is also interesting – there are many ancient stone villages not too far from Chongqing, really worth exploring; there are hot springs; ancient temples; also villages specializing in various handicrafts such as ceramics, bamboo lanterns, ink stones and folding fans;  not to speak of the contemporary art scene at and around the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.

There really is so much to do here 

Is Chongqing an ideal place for foreigners for living in and doing business?
How can Chongqing become more international?

Chongqing is an excellent place for foreigners to do business with Chinese State and private corporations.  Despite evident win-win gains, however, it is not an easy place for foreigners to on-sell their services to TNCs and TNIs already established in Chongqing.  The reason for this is the tendency for TNCs and TNIs to put their decision makers in the modern, international comforts of Shanghai, or within range of lobbying China’s National Government in Beijing. Doing business with these TNCs and TNIs involves convincing the decision makers in Shanghai or Beijing.

Here is a hypothesis that could and should be tested.  Foreign top managers of TNCs and TNIs send only that part of their organization to Chongqing that absolutely needs to be in Chongqing, namely their production plants.  The white collar, decision making staff of the TNCs and TNIs (foreigners and nationals) tend to live in Shanghai or Beijing.   One argument given for this decision is that it easier to manage TNC and TNI operations in several Chinese cities from either of the two most central points – Shanghai or Beijing.  

This locational division occurs irrespective of cost savings of placing such staff in Chongqing  

If this hypothesis is largely correct, then how to make Chongqing more international in large part means how to capture for Chongqing the combination of factors that draw so many people and companies (both foreign and Chinese) to Shanghai?  The specific answer involves drawing to Chongqing the symbiotic and complex collection of service industries that exist in a city like Shanghai or London or New York – not to scale of Shanghai or London or New York but to a similar variety of services.  Building this complex of services will need the entrepreneurship of both Chinese and foreigners. It involves upping the urban comfort level of those who come to reside in Chongqing – complex things like better traffic control, better regional and international transport services, patient focused health services, housing that accommodates modern living styles by minor improvements such as enlargement of kitchens and bathrooms, gas and supplementary solar power, more home delivery services, efficient well equipped repair companies, and so the list goes on.

In addition to these tangible items, there is the intangible but visible Chongqing culture which shouldn’t just be frozen in museums.  Chongqing is a unique river cross-roads city.  Any nodes of old Chongqing should be revitalized by repair and addition of amenities like gas TV cable and city sanitation pipes.  And its residents encouraged to continue living there.  Create a living part of Chongqing’s special heritage and culture.  This is how cities become to be seen as world cities.    ..    

What is Asia Pacific Access’s long-term goal in Chongqing? How will you promote your program in local enterprises which have done or will grow overseas business? 

Our long term goal in Chongqing is to make a recognizable contribution to Chongqing becoming a booming, livable international city, highly attractive to FDI ,with foreigners keen to come on assignment to the city and Chongqing nationals highly competent and confident to work with those foreigners as colleagues and, looking ahead, as managers of those foreigners.

There are two target groups to whom we believe we can add value by improving efficiency and personal satisfaction levels in Chongqing – (i) expats; and (ii) Chinese nationals.

Firstly about expats: We aim to help more expats understand and appreciate Chongqing and to enjoy the experience of living here. We would like to join together with other local groups and companies to show foreigners how interesting Chongqing is as a city and also, how many interesting people live in this city.
Secondly about Chinese nationals:   We would also like to help Chongqing business people work better with foreigners: whether it is in Chongqing itself or to support the Chongqing enterprises as they reach out looking for opportunities abroad for investment. Since Chongqing’s interaction with the West has in recent years been relatively limited, we would like to introduce our Chongqing colleagues to Western business culture; western business etiquette. What are the expectations of a Western company; how to best promote their products; how to put together a power point presentation which would be persuasive for a Western audience; how not to upset or have conflicts or miscommunication with Western businessmen they meet. This can be helpful to Chongqing delegations going on overseas visits looking for business opportunities and also for Chongqing enterprises as they invest overseas.

There is now a considerable amount of information about the cross-cultural and cross-institutional cultural issues which Chinese companies (listed and non-listed SOEs and private companies) have confronted when investing overseas. Some of that information is in the overseas press and more so now in disciplined academic research.  We follow this information closely. For example there is a recurrence of poor relations with foreign communities residing close by the investment and with key foreign institutions such as local Trade Unions.  One may argue these issues can be solved by better PR (publicity campaigns).  We say PR has a role but the key is cross-cultural – adjustment of both personal behaviour of Chinese staff and institutional behaviour of the Chinese company to blend in to the local overseas business and social scene.  We train Chinese staff before they go overseas, and we are available to visit the Chinese investment site and make recommendations to corporate cross-cultural sensitivity and adjustment.
We see our role as a bridge not just to Westerners coming to China, but to bring our time and experience in China to also support Chongqing enterprises looking overseas.

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