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Tips for positive engagement with China

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It might seem odd to say after working for 15 years in bridging research and innovation collaboration between the UK and China, but I still find this a fascinating space.

Anyone familiar with China’s breakneck pace will tell you that its sheer scale and speed presents both challenges and opportunities, which calls on those working here to constantly refresh their understanding of how emerging technologies are driving global economic development and changing people’s lives.

Businessman standing in front of a wall with the word 'TIPS 'written on the wall in red

I’d like to share my understanding of where the UK and China’s complementary strengths lie and how to grow fruitful partnerships.  So, if you’re an innovative startup or SME wanting to tap into China’s vast, dynamic but notoriously challenging market, I’ve got a few tips that might help you on your journey.

Get to know China

China’s research and innovation landscape is complex and chameleonic. Understanding its unique social and cultural context and getting on-the-ground support to navigate the landscape is essential.

Studious looking young man with glasses holding a book, with a pen to his mouth, thinking and lots of questions marks and light bulbs coming out of his head

Know who you’re dealing with

The core principles we stick to when building partnerships across boundaries apply even more so in the Chinese context:

  • Take a pragmatic approach
  • Factor in different perspectives and values
  • Pursue long-term gains.

Trust isn’t built in a day

Building trust in China takes serious time and effort – you’re entering a system with very different priorities and values. Learn to appreciate the differences and be open to engagement.

Chinese writing on a chalk board with the word 'Trust'

Identify where real value lies

China is already a world leader in certain sectors such as e-commerce. Novel commercial models developed in China are often poorly understood overseas but are changing its business landscape.

Focus on complementary strengths and where advances can be made – there’s no point reinventing wheels the Chinese have already perfected.

Think small

Often overshadowed by their state-owned counterparts, SME's in China are the major force driving innovation:

  • Accounting for more than 90% of registered companies in China
  • Employ about 80% of the workforce
  • Contribute nearly 50% of tax revenue and 70% of technological innovations

The importance of SME's is represented by the myriad incentives put in place, particularly by regional governments, who are also keen to help SME's attract investment, technology and talent from overseas.

Think fundamental

China is the world’s number one publisher of research. In certain scientific disciplines such as chemistry and materials sciences, China-authored papers are world-leading. Strength in core subjects has also fuelled its innovation pipeline.

Orange, blue and yellow one dimensional people on a white board with a blue dotted line connecting them

Make use of people power

The large number of Chinese students going abroad and overseas Chinese returning to the country have brought wider perspectives. Make the best use of UK alumni in China – many have deep attachments to the UK and actively want to develop international projects.

Forget what you think you know about China’s IP system…

A huge amount of effort has been put in place across the country to enforce IP laws and regulations, and it is paying off. China’s cyber security law, and rules and regulations on scientific data management are constantly being modified to keep pace with economic change.

Keep an eye on policy developments and seek advice from experts when needed – but know that China is becoming serious about protecting IP.

Young woman with glasses reading a book and smiling

…and update your economic geography

Regional clusters focussing on different industries have emerged in China and innovation is by no means confined to the big-name cities. Coastal provinces have a well-deserved reputation for being business-friendly and able to deliver high quality partnerships rapidly and effectively.

Beyond Beijing and Shanghai, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces are all hotbeds for research and development – don’t assume your perfect partner is based in the capital.

China defies categorisation

There is no universal model for achieving fruitful partnerships in China. Leveraging support from governments and funding agencies in both countries is important. Joining missions and trade fairs help forge connections. But sustaining partnerships requires commitment, patience and pragmatic approaches.

Forging international innovation partnerships helps stimulate new ideas, access diverse talent and funding, broadens markets and creates truly international brands. With the right partner, all of this is possible in China. I have seen spectacular success and dismal failures, depending on the level of due diligence and mutual commitment.

This is not unique to China of course – being prepared to engage with this market as it is, rather than as we think it is, is the best first step towards success and above all, understand the importance of relationships.

Almost every day I listen to UK delegates describe their trip as being a world away from the China they anticipated. The dynamism, the appetite for collaboration and the entrepreneurial spirit of constantly driving to improve and pushing boundaries are deeply embedded in this country’s modern culture.

Don’t believe me? Come and see for yourself!


You can follow Grace Lang, China Director, UK Research and Innovation on Twitter

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