Opening up to the New Year

Let’s look ahead to working together in 2024 to build even more bridges of understanding between the people of Britain and China

In this new year blog I want to look backwards and forwards, reflecting on one of the most important parts of our SACU mission, opening up greater friendship and understanding between the peoples of our two countries.

In a way what I’m doing in these blogs is very simple. I’m trying to share with you accounts of the friendships I’ve experienced here in China, the people I work with and live amongst to grow our shared sense that, as a phrase from the Analects,《论语》of Confucius says, 四海之内皆兄弟, sìhǎizhīnèijiēxiōngdì, ‘around the four seas we are all one family’.

What is ‘opening up’? 2023 marked the 45th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up policy. We are all aware of ‘opening up’, “开放”as a remarkable economic strategy which has lifted more than 100 million Chinese people out of poverty, and which in turn has contributed more than 70 percent to global poverty alleviation.

But what does ‘opening up’ mean in everyday terms. Let’s take something as simple as signage. Everywhere you travel in China you will be helped by seeing signs in Chinese and English. Recently I was in the remote mountainous region of Sichuan Province where signs were in three languages – Chinese, English and the written language of the local ethnic group. It reminded me of bilingual road signs in Wales and Scotland. China is open to the English language even in areas where speaking English has no functional purpose at all. There is not a village I’ve trekked through where someone has not welcomed me with a cheerful ‘Hello’ or wished me the ubiquitous Chinese adaptation of the English ‘bye bye’. I wonder how many Chinese visitors to England hear a ‘ni hao’ or a ‘zaijian’?

English language and Western culture pops up in surprising ways all over China. This is a shopping mall in Chengdu, south-west China

Michael Wood, our SACU President, in his inspirational ‘The Story of China’ paints vivid pictures of the international communities in the Chinese cities of the Tang and Song dynasties. The same is true of modern China. To sit in a Starbucks in Shanghai or Shenzhen is truly to sit at the crossroads of the world and hear languages and ideas from across Asia, across the Pacific, all areas of the African continent as well as Europe and the Americas.

One of my favourite ‘people to people’ opening up’ experiences happened on a train in Gansu, a desert province in the far west of China. I met a party of Jamaican engineers as my fellow-travellers. I have a great love of Jamaica, having, worked extensively with Jamaican British students and families in schools in London and having had the great fortune to travel there. I introduced myself and wondered at meeting them in such a place.

They explained to me how the derelict, almost bankrupt aluminium plant where they worked ‘back home’ had been purchased by a Chinese company. The mill was being completely rebuilt with the most modern production technology and they were in China while this happened, being trained in metallurgy in a Beijing university and given guided tours of China. The future looked good they said. Not only had the factory been saved from certain closure, but they all had contracts of life-long employment. A new world had ‘opened up’ for them and their families.

My personal experience of how China is open to the international community is from the COVID times. I flew back to be with my teachers and students in October 2020 little expecting that months and months of the worst of the pandemic lay ahead. I have to say in all honestly and simplicity that the Chinese people throughout that difficult period took me to their hearts as one of their own and could not do enough to make sure I was as healthy and secure as everyone else in the Chinese community where I was locked down. There was no resentment of a foreigner queuing patiently with them for daily testing. The test officials patiently learned how to process a foreign passport and record me in the system, even though it took double the time of all of the other residents.

We should never forget what a locked down world felt like – so we appreciate opening up. The author flies back to China to be with his students and teachers, October 2020

In times of stress and anxiety, outsiders become scapegoats, but there was no ‘Anglo-phobia’ of the sort that unfortunately some Chinese British people at the same time had to suffer as ‘Sino-phobia’. That is an unacceptable stain on British society that SACU will do everything it can to remove. On a happier note, my students in Britain have told me that they felt as safe and as welcome as I did in China, being looked after by their universities.

Which brings us to looking back and looking forward. It seems incredible that only a year ago we began to return to the everyday happiness of mixing with each other after the ending of lockdown. That in itself was a type of opening up wasn’t it ? Meeting friends and family again. We should take the same spirit of joy in community and working together into a renewed opening up between the people of our two countries. When we care for and respect each other, we first of all survive and then we thrive.

Looking back and looking forward, we can take inspiration from the rich culture of Anglo Chinese connections to which we are all personally contributing through SACU. This tradition of bridges and connections goes at least as far back as the thirteenth century when, as Michael Wood recounts, a traveller from Beijing, called Rabban Sawma, met the then English king, Edward 1st, in Bordeaux Cathedral.

As Barclay Price traces in his wonderful ‘The Chinese in Britain’, there is a continuous history of person to person exchanges between the English and the Chinese since 1685 and the arrival of a traveller from China called Shen FuTsung (Shen Fuzong)at the court of King James 1. This rich thread of connections includes of course the inspiration of Joseph Needham himself. The tides of official history have ebbed and flowed between collaboration and competition but the history of people to people friendship is constant.

The front cover of Barclay Price’s excellent history of people to people connections

As 2024 opens we should be in no doubt that the voices demanding walls and division around the world will grow louder. But equally be in no doubt that history is on the side of co-operation and harmony. At the very point where it seems the forces of fragmentation must prevail, cultural undercurrents such as SACU and other voices of understanding and tolerance, will become part of a resurgent cycle of renewal. Communities of shared understanding such as ours are the only common sense, international solution to the urgent problems for which division and suspicion in the end have no answers, problems such as the climate crisis and inequality.

Let’s join together in our SACU family to open our hearts and minds to the opportunities of the new year. I’ll end as I began with the simple profundity of Confucius:

有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎 ,

yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bù yì lè hū

Isn’t it wonderful to receive guests from afar.

Connections between the people of Britain and the people of China are everywhere. This is a popular tea-house in Shanghai

( The author would like to thank Jiaxi Li for her expert help with this article, 非常 感谢)