Old China hands in Beijing share their perceptions of China since its reform and opening-up

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/14 19:13:39

Long-term expats in China talk about the country's reform and opening-up as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of the policy. Photo: VCG

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up, a set of policies that was proposed by the then leader Deng Xiaoping and implemented in 1978 that pushedpushed China through the barriers of hundreds of years of self-isolation and allowed more frequent communication and exchange between China and the outside world.  

After the reform and opening-up policies were implemented, many foreigners got to come to China, and they have witnessed and experienced the changes that happened in the country over the years.

Metropolitan interviewed three "old China hands" who have been living in China for over 20 years to get their thoughts on China after the reform and opening-up and find out how the changes impacted on their lives.

Jade Gray Photo: Zhang Xinyuan/GT

 Jade Gray, founder of Gung Ho! Pizza

Gray arrived in China in 1996 from his home country of New Zealand. He had learned Chinese at university and had always wanted to come to China and start a business here. He currently has seven Gung Ho! Pizza stores in Beijing.

GT: What was your first impression of China when you first arrived?

Gray: I had read some information about China in some newspapers and magazines back in New Zealand about the reform and opening-up policy, but when I got here, it was nothing like what I read in those articles. It was chaotic in China, but in an organized way, and I was impressed with Chinese people's industrious spirit of turning every situation into the best possible situation in a pragmatic way.

GT: What's your observation of China's changes after the reform and opening-up?

Gray: In terms of entrepreneurship and the business environment in China, the real change after the reform and opening-up is the strengthening of the law. [For example], more recently, there is an anti-corruption drive that has really changed the way business is done here. The relationship between businesses and the government has become more transparent. It makes it easier for foreigners to navigate the business environment.

Another change is how China's confidence in itself has grown.

When I first got here, foreigners were put in a bubble, almost on a pedestal. Foreigners were treated with respect and incredible hospitality, but also aloofly. We had currency specifically for foreigners and friendship stores for foreigners. We were treated differently because we are foreigners. The experience was nice, but it wasn't right.

I started to feel the changing attitude toward foreigners after Beijing got the opportunity to host the summer Olympic Games. China did very well, and the Peking Olympics was also a success; I could just sense the national pride growing. I felt the people get a sense of belief in themselves again and find direction after a really difficult period.

The global financial crisis happened around that time. For years, China had looked to Western countries, especially the US, as an economic model, but after that, China realized that Western models have problems too and started to look inside [the country] for inspiration.

Since then, people started to treat me like a regular person, and I was no longer treated differently because I am a foreigner.

I work in the food and beverage industry, so one change I am amazed at is how fast China's consumers have evolved in terms of sophistication. They now have an international mind and taste. That's because with the reform and opening-up, Chinese consumers have broadened their horizons with Chinese going abroad to study or travel. [At the same time,] more foreign products are coming in, and the internet, which allows them to learn trendy things, has been popularized.

Ten years ago, a foreigner opens a pizza store, and it's a sure thing that it would be a success. But now, Chinese consumers no longer follow the stores opened by foreigners with wide eyes. They would ask what type of pizza it is, whether it's authentic and where the ingredients come from. They are already the most sophisticated consumers in the world.

Jennifer Sachs Photo: Zhang Xinyuan/GT

Jennifer Sachs, CEO of Hyde Academy

Jennifer Sachs arrived in China in 1991 from the US. When she first arrived in China, she taught at the Beijing University of Technology. Now, she owns two learning centers in Beijing and works as the CEO of Hyde Academy. She is married to a local Chinese man, and they have three sons together.

GT: What was your first impression of China when you arrived?

Sachs: I was a Russian major at university, and I visited Russia. So, I had an idea about China before I came here, which was that the country is going be gray and really controlled. However, as soon as I got off the plane, I realized that the country is full of the color, I don't just mean the buildings and trees. I mean the attitude of people and the environment. I could feel the warmth and the joy in people, and there was always something new happening every day. Since the day I landed in this country, I fell in love with it. There is always something new that draws me in, just like the way you fall in love with a person, you can't explain it.

GT: What's your opinion of China's reform and opening-up policy?

Sachs: I believe it's a very good policy. To me, communication is key because when we are closed, we can't see the outside world, and it's impossible to learn. Also, it's because of the opening-up that I was able to come to China and start a family and business here.

It also brought up an ocean of opportunities. Every week, people in different industries come to me asking to cooperate. It's been a really good time to be here.

GT: What's your observation of China's changes after the reform and opening-up?

Sachs: There are so many changes. For example, I have an old photo of Chang'an Avenue back in the 1990s; it was filled with bicycles, and now it has so many cars lining the road. It's a completely different view.

I work in education, so I will start there. In the past, parents and students only wanted to learn English, but now they want to learn more about foreign cultures as well. It's no longer just about language now.

In addition to that, in the past, parents only cared about grades, but now they care about whether their kids are caring and responsible and about other qualities they can improve on other than grades.

The interest in foreigners and foreign culture has also deepened. In the past, when locals see me, they would point at me and shout laowai (foreigner). Now, some of them will talk to me and ask me questions like what are my values and why I chose to stay in China. We can have a real conversation.

Dominic Jonhson-Hill Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dominic Johnson-Hill, founder of Plastered T-shirts

Dominic Johnson-Hill arrived in China in 1993 from the UK as a backpacker. He later realized the vast potential for business opportunities in China and stayed. After several entrepreneurial explorations, he started one of the most famous local expat brands: Plastered T-shirts. He is married to a local Chinese, and they have four daughters.

GT: What was your first impression of China when you arrived?

Hill: Originally, I only started to work in China to earn some money so that I could move on to my next destination. Then I realized that there are so many opportunities here, and I could get jobs that I could've never gotten in any other country, so the opportunities are what kept me in here. For example, I got to work for a big market research company where I was sent all over the country to research their products. Later, I got to set up my first company doing market research.

GT: What's your observation of China's changes after the reform and opening-up?

Hill: I want to show the changes in China through one person. Back in the 90s, I was traveling all over China to the small cities and villages. I remember meeting a man in Shandong Province who was earning 800 yuan per month working for a tobacco company. I visited him 20 years later, and I met his son who had just been born when I met him for the first time.

His son is 25 years old now and has just returned from the US where he studied at a university. [His son] has started his own business now and has a very nice car and house.

It's very impressive to see how China has changed in just one generation, how many people have come out of impoverishment to have a successful business.

I went back to many of those small towns and villages I went to in the 90s; they all have nice infrastructure now, from high-speed trains to IT facilities.
I feel extremely fortunate to be able to be part of this growth, create my own business among the changes, and be a small fraction of Beijing and see my T-shirts being sold to England and France as a Beijing brand.

China has undergone marked changes over the last few decades both on the local and international stage, old China hands say. Photo: IC


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