CHINA / POLITICS
Ice-breakers of China-UK Trade
Published: Jun 08, 2021 11:54 AM
After the Korean War broke out in 1950, the US-led Western countries imposed a trade embargo on the newborn People's Republic of China. In 1951, renowned Cambridge economist Joan Robinson encouraged Jack Perry, a businessman in the garment industry, to engage in trade with China. Robinson and Perry reached out to people from the British political and business communities and persuaded them to attend the International Economic Conference held in Moscow in 1952, which eventually led to the signing of trade agreements between China and the UK.

During his stay in the UK, Ji Chaoding, Secretary-General of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), paid multiple visits to Perry. He shared with Jack Perry and his son Stephen Perry the Chinese story of "an old man named Yugong removing the mountains," telling them that in Beijing there were many more people like Yugong who believed firmly in China's national rejuvenation. The father and the son were deeply moved by the story.

In 1953, at the invitation of the CCPIT, a delegation composed of Perry and 15 representatives from British companies visited China. The visit thawed the West's trade embargo on China and thus members of the delegation were later known as "ice-breakers." The delegation signed trade agreements worth ₤30 million with the China National Import and Export Corporation. Under the agreements, China would export tea, canola oil, silk and other agricultural products to the UK, and the UK would export non-strategic goods like wool, metal and chemicals to China. Ambiguous wording was used for the names of controlled gray zone products. The agreements were a major breakthrough against the Western trade embargo.

Jack Perry and 15 representatives from British companies visit Beijing, 1953

Jack Perry and 15 representatives from British companies visit Beijing, 1953


In the following year, a trade mission of 48 British businessmen led by Jack Perry visited China. The cohort was the precursor of The 48 Group, which was renamed The 48 Group Club in 1991. The 48 Group Club has since made important contributions to improving China's relations with the West, the UK in particular.

China's reform and opening up has drawn The 48 Group Club and Jack and Stephen Perry closer to China. Having witnessed the great changes brought about by reform and opening up, they believed that China would play an increasingly important role on the global stage. Stephen Perry said that the year 1978 was a turning point for both China and the world, and that China had surprised the world with its great achievements.

In 1993, Stephen succeeded his father as the chairman of the Club and took up the icebreakers' mantle of advancing China-UK trade. After decades of cooperation, Jack and Stephen Perry forged deep bonds with generations of Chinese communists and gained a good understanding of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Stephen believes that the key to China's success is the CPC leadership, under which the Chinese government has been able to break away from old thinking and make brave and effective planning and exploration.

On October 16, 2018, President Xi Jinping met with Stephen Perry at the Great Hall of the People. President Xi stressed that Chinese people would never forget the older generations of trail-blazers who made historic contributions to China-UK trade under tough circumstances. "I'm very glad to see the spirit of the ice-breaking trip being carried forward from generation to generation, and a new generation of ice-breakers, including The 48 Group Club, continue to dedicate themselves to China-UK friendship," President Xi said. On December 18, at the conference marking the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up, Stephen Perry was awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal for his contributions of carrying on the friendship and promoting economic and cultural exchanges between China and the UK.

When Jack Perry started his ice-breaking trip, China accounted for less than 1 percent of global trade. The newborn People's Republic had to navigate a tough international landscape to explore ways of conducting foreign trade. More than half a century on, reform and opening up has enabled China to achieve high-speed growth and integrate ever more deeply into the global trading system. China is now the second largest economy and the largest exporter of goods in the world, taking up 11.5 percent of global trade. As China continues its economic integration with the UK and the whole world, there may be no more ice to break, but more bridges to build to connect China to the world, advance communication, cooperation and mutual understanding, and provide greater impetus to global prosperity and development. 

Stephen Perry addresses the photo exhibition titled “A Glorious Journey” held by the Chinese Embassy in the UK, December 11, 2018

Stephen Perry addresses the photo exhibition titled “A Glorious Journey” held by the Chinese Embassy in the UK, December 11, 2018


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