My China Voice is a new feature from Chopsticks Club. Its aim is to capture the history of modern China through the personal and unique experience of our members and supporters. Profiled people are selected because their ‘China Voice’ and experience has been part of recent China-UK history. We believe that their story will inspire others because it is pioneering, has transformed lives, has brought about change or deepened mutual understanding. We hope you enjoy ‘hearing’ these China Voices.
|Job Title:||Chairman and Lead Researcher|
|Date:||12 September 2015|
|My China Voice:||#1|
Rupert Hoogewerf, 45, born in Luxembourg and educated in England, is a long-term Shanghai resident and the most well-known foreigner in China. Accountant turned entrepreneur, Rupert founded the ‘China Rich List,’ and has ‘grown up’ since 1999 alongside China’s ultra-high net worth billionaires and millionaires. Rupert’s China Voice tells of his fascinating life based on a business idea that has vividly tracked and reflected the extraordinary transformation of modern China; its society, its people, its economy and its dreams.
I caught up with Rupert Hoogewerf as he was taking part in the September 2015 Hong Kong – Beijing Car Rally in his Audi Quattro rally car. First stop is Shenzhen, followed by Guangzhou and several cities before Beijing.
Q: What prompted your interest in China?
A: I was born in Luxembourg so was brought up speaking multiple languages from a very young age. When I was choosing my university and a degree course I was determined to do something different and interesting – and studying Chinese was certainly that back in 1989!
Poetry has always captured my imagination and my initial interest in studying Chinese was an intellectual one rather than a far-sighted vision of wanting to live in China. I feel that the Chinese written language is like poetry in 4D; the Chinese characters are imbued with so much vivid meaning and history in their pictographic roots making them quite beautiful and fascinating to me!
Q: What is your earliest memory of China?
A: Arriving in Beijing in September 1989 ready to start studying (with you, H-J) at Renmin Daxue, the People’s University. I felt pretty small, actually, arriving in that airport in a completely strange and new place at the start of a study year and thinking what adventures might be ahead. ‘Tiananmen Square’ had happened only a year before and we were the first foreign students back in mainland China. What made me happy, though, was to see our fellow class-mate, Christian Havrehed, in the Arrivals Hall coming to welcome us. “If he is safe and smiling,” I thought, “then all must be well.”
My next memories include a summer in Wuxi in 1991 - very much a hardship posting back then – followed by the summer of 1992 when I worked in Beijing. It felt so cool being there then and I enjoyed listening to the local music and hearing and understanding the conversations going on around me.
Q. I know you live in Shanghai; how did that come about?
A. I worked originally as an accountant for Arthur Andersen in London. The idea of working in Shanghai with its pioneering spirit really captured my imagination and I wanted to leverage the global network of the company. It took 3 years to persuade the Shanghai partner to take me on but that chance finally came; I landed in Shanghai the night Lady Diana was killed on 31 August 1997.
I remember distinctly having a smile on my face every day that year; it was a real honeymoon period. It was a privilege to be working with really clever people and, because I didn’t initially have a social life in this new city, it gave me the chance to take life at a slower pace than I had in London, able to stay at home in the evenings and savour the simple pleasures of reading a book!
Q. What do you find intriguing about Chinese culture and why?
A. This is a great question because Chinese culture is really where my idea for the China Rich List (胡润百副) started. Soon after arriving in Shanghai I found a Chinese tutor and we met in a café every Saturday afternoon to speak mandarin. I asked my tutor to prepare a topic around a different area of Chinese culture every week, TV programmes, for example. One day I asked her to find out about Chinese business people but she came back with no information. I was a bit disappointed and thought that she just hadn’t done enough research. But she came back empty-handed again the following week and I was really intrigued. My colleagues at Arthur Andersen similarly reached a blank and this kick-started my idea for the China Rich List.
Q. What, in your experience, is the most challenging thing about doing business in China?
A. For me, it is managing people. I’m not sure whether this is just me or whether it’s similar for other foreigners managing Chinese people in China.
I also find the lunch-time ritual starting at 12 noon a little odd; there is just no flexibility – unlike in London where people take lunch at random times. What is excellent, though, is the gender parity in the work-place; this is really positive.
Q: What have you witnessed over your time in China and where do you think China is going?
A: I have been tracking Chinese businesses for a long time now and it has been through this lens that I have witnessed the emergence of modern China in a really vivid way. The research of the 50 individuals on my original ‘Rich List’ in 1999 provided the explanation for China’s transformation through watching the growth of its economy and industry. There is no ‘old money’ in China and this extraordinary story of wealth creation has really not happened in China ever before. There was a boom period in Shanghai in the 1920s, yes, but this was set against a backdrop of strife in the country, civil war was looming as was the invasion of Japan…You could go so far as to say that there has never been a country in the world that has had a boom of such wealth creation (except perhaps the ‘rubber-baron’ period in the late 19th century in the US which also started from a zero-base in wealth terms).
China’s economy is definitely slowing down now but, paradoxically, more wealth has been created in 2015 than in 5,000 years of China’s history – and that is quite extraordinary!
Q. What’s the worst thing about China?
A. What really gets to me is when people speak their own opinion and then claim to represent the whole 1.3billion population. This is a very narrow view and it is clearly impossible to stereo-type such a diverse and huge population like that. An example would be of an individual saying that he/she doesn’t like noodles and that therefore, “we Chinese don’t like noodles!” This simply isn’t and cannot be true!
Q. If you could take one thing from China with you to a desert island (or back to England with you) what would it be?
A. The contemporary Chinese artwork on my office wall. I don’t really understand traditional Chinese ink paintings with their clouds and mountains but I can take a guess at understanding this contemporary piece and can share in the fun of it and really enjoy it.
Q. From your perspective, what is the biggest impact China will have on itself and the rest of the world?
A. Its new-found and vast self-confidence is having a huge impact on China. When I came to study in China in 1990, the country was not part of the developed world and it felt like that and it acted like a lesser nation. Now it is easier – and healthier somehow – to make friends and to meet people because we are building relationships on a more equal footing. This new-found confidence transcends society and this is a really good thing.
As for the impact on the rest of the world? China is so relevant to everything now and all-pervasive. Whether you are Harvard or an Oxbridge university – Chinese students are coming. In terms of the outbound Chinese travellers they are keen to find out about your country and are willing and able to spend money. That China now demands engagement and stimulates debate is very healthy.
Q. What’s the most exciting thing about what you do?
A. I find it exhilarating travelling all over China meeting entrepreneurs who have good ideas and dreams and are willing to take risks. I have very few entrepreneur friends back in England relative to my friends in China. Many old friends ended up in the City of London working for large corporates.
Q. How do you see the China-UK relationship growing over the next 5 years?
A. From a business perspective, it is very exciting that 80-90% of Chinese parents are ambitious for their children to go to school overseas. In terms of boarding school options Britain is leading the way. This is as personal as it gets and is therefore a great way in which to build relationships. We also have the advantage of being a real travel destination and recognised for our brands and shopping. Chinese people respect what we have achieved in our history and we can build on that, too.
Q. Do you speak Chinese?
A. Yes. [Here, Rupert was very modest and I must take editorial liberty to say that he is bi-lingual and has a very natural way with the language – H-J].
Q. What is your link to Chopsticks Club and how do you think it adds value?
A. I believe that Chopsticks Club has a very important role to play in Britain - especially in developing Chinese relations. Its fore-runner, started by me, was known as ‘China Tuesdays.’ Its aim then was for members to give case studies about their early days in China and we heard from bankers and entrepreneurs even back then.
But the most amazing thing about Chopsticks Club is how you two ladies, familiarly known by everyone as ‘H-J’ and ‘T’, have built such an incredible and personal community that not only appeals to business but crosses the spheres of economics, politics and current affairs. Your community is really strong; you have a real nugget there and a lifetime’s work ahead of you!
At this point we said goodbye as Rupert prepared to get back into the driving seat to zip 3,500 kilometres northwards towards Beijing. 加油, Rupert!
Dated: 12 September 2015
Interview with H-J Colston, Joint CEO, Chopsticks Club