The "icebreaker" who helps bond China with West



LONDON, Oct. 22 (Xinhua) -- When growing up, like many boys, Stephen Perry, Chairman of Britain's 48 Group Club, had a father with a momentous impact on him.

"My father was a very powerful man," said grey-haired Stephen, 70, flipping through the precious collections of faded photos and media clips of his late father Jack Perry, known as one of the icebreakers of UK-China trade ties.

"Even when I was very young, I knew my father was different," said Stephen who took over the helm in 1993 as head of the 48 Group Club, a business association founded by his father in 1950s to help bridge relations between China and Britain.

Stephen had always wondered whether he could be as strong as his father. The challenge he faces now is no less daunting than in his father's time. That is to help remove the prejudice against China and unfreeze what he calls the "culture deficit" between China and the Western world.


In 1954, Jack Perry, the founder of London Export Corporation, led a group of 48 British businessmen on a historic trade mission to Beijing and helped deliver one of the first modern-day trade links with China, effectively breaking the U.S.-led Western embargo on the newly founded Asian country. Stephen was then only six years old.

The 48 men were the precursors of the 48 Group Club. The trip became known as the "Icebreaking Mission," and the club members were called "icebreakers."

"I grew up with a Chinese background," said Stephen, "My father believed China would return. I believe it too."

In 1972, Stephen landed in Shanghai for his first trip to China, during which his father and he helped seal the first trade deal between America and China, for selling U.S. products including polyester, agricultural chemicals and cotton.

During the visit, Stephen noticed large stretches of rice paddy fields, hard-working Chinese peasants and lack of cars on streets and roads between cities.

"When I look back to that first visit in 1972, I could see that the people wanted something more. It wasn't that they were saying it. It was the sense that China had the power to do something," Stephen said.

In 1972, then U.S. President Richard Nixon made the historic visit to China, a move that thawed the China-U.S. relations. It was the year when China and Britain established diplomatic ties. It was also the year when Stephen made his lifetime decision to dedicate himself, like his father, to improving UK-China trade relations.

The big moment came six years later when China announced its reform and opening-up. Stephen had since been trying hard to figure out what it meant for China and the world. He watched the development in China carefully and went to libraries to dig up historical documents.

"It took me up to seven, eight years to understand how transformational reform and opening-up was," he said.

"People talk about miracles. If you think that the industrial revolution in Britain took 150 to 200 years, China did it in 40 years from a standing start. It's an absolutely breathtaking economic miracle," he added.


Today, more than six decades after the "Icebreaking Mission," the 48 Group Club continues its efforts to promote positive UK-China relations.

The Club now has over 600 British and Chinese members, including senior executives from corporate organizations, high-level politicians, diplomats, academics and people focusing on cultural relations. Stephen said the club has a vital role in helping reduce the "cultural deficit" between China and the Western world.

The club organizes meetings on a regular basis on UK-China relations and its efforts span across Britain, Europe and the United States. Stephen goes often on TV and newspapers to express his understanding of China and his vision of the world with the benefit of China's growth.

Even right in a golden-era of UK-China relations, Stephen believes that huge potentials of cooperation between the two countries are yet to tap, and prejudice and misunderstanding still exist, especially on the British side.

"For the British to understand China, for the British to understand the opportunities, and how to manage the challenges of China, that is all the ice breaking, It's not changed since 1950s. Those problem existed, and then they exist today," Stephen said.

The core challenge that China faces is "the changing world order" particularly with a wave of rising protectionism unleashed by the United States, said Stephen.

The U.S. government, which sees China only as a threat and competitor, fails to realize that China's growth brings huge opportunities, he said.

"We have to do a lot of communication to leaders of companies, leaders of politics, leaders of academics, media to understand what China is, and remove the prejudices. It will take time," said Stephen.

"I don't think China will seek to be the world's dominant power, as if it is, it will have to operate in a way, which to my observation, is not consistent with how Chinese think or live. The basic core values of China are very well pronounced, very well known over 3,000 years," he added.

In 2008, a new network named The Young Icebreakers was established to act as a bridge between Chinese and British young professionals. Jack Perry, Stephen's eldest son who bears his grandfather's name, was one of the founding chairmen.

It will take decades and generations to fill the "culture deficit" between the West and China, now the world's second largest economy, Stephen said.

"The greatest challenge of the ice breakers in the next phase is to help the world understand China, and also, I think they help China understand the world," he said.