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Exploring China? Five tips to get Welsh businesses on the right track

04 Feb, 2021

My name is Ling Lai, GlobalWelsh Beijing hub host, and earlier this week I presented to a group of Welsh business leaders as part of the Welsh Government's virtual trade mission to China. I was brought up in Cardiff, but have spent the last 26 years working in China and was delighted to have the opportunity to share my knowledge and experience with the group.

It's great to see the diversity of Welsh firms seeking new opportunities in the post-pandemic in a new geopolitical world and it's fantastic that Welsh Government is now working jointly with GlobalWelsh to boost trade, investment and diaspora support for Welsh businesses.

About me...

I came to China as an oilman in 1994, as the country was expanding its exporting capability and concurrently modernising as part of the 9th Five Year Plan. I landed myself a job 1600kms up the Yangtze River in Chongqing working for an international firm to help set up a $250million joint venture supplying locally rather than exporting them into China.   

In 2021, I've completed four tours in China, I have seen the whole country become one of the world’s leading industrial nations shaking up the world order. I’ve seen the heart, minds, hands, and spirit of Chinese society rejuvenated. I never could never have dreamed in 1994 that I would be working with Chinese State and private conglomerates inside China and taking Chinese firms abroad to invest in great assets around the world in both developed and developing countries.

There are 1000’s of books written by Old China Hands (some good, some not so good) and many books detailing China’s 5000 years of history and for detailed insights, China explorers should sniff these out.  If Wales is to seize the opportunity to move China (the second largest global economy) from being Wales' number 9th exporter destination to the top 2 then intelligent implementation is the secret sauce. It’s not just strategy or country knowledge but the planning and practical execution which will be key in breaking into and trading in China.

Here are my top five tips to help Welsh firms get started:

Tip 1: Do your homework

Make you you do your research and 'size up' the opportunity. Make sure you are basing it on facts by cross-checking from multiple sources, and are supercritical of the data, estimates, and judgments. Talk to people close to the market don't just read reports.

Tip 2: Finesse your 'value proposition'

Make your your value is clear and relevant to Chinese industrial and retail buyers. Don’t be precious to cannibalize and reinvent your standard product or service. This may lift your level of offering to the market beyond China. For instance, the China digital marketplace has meant that many new entrants to the market have had to adjust online presence and execution capability to capture Chinese business.

Tip 3: Get boots on the ground

Most exporters use the flying/flyout model of drumming up business in China.  Then they get disappointed sales don’t crystallize. Having a trusted, empowered and culturally bilingual representatives on the ground makes a huge difference to scaling - and ultimately success in China.

Tip 4: Be ready to create and collaborate

Being prepared to co-create products or services that fit the China market is key in some sectors. China isn’t just a sink to offload your Welsh products but an opportunity to design, innovate and make the products jointly as a Welsh-Chinese firm. Not just for China and Wales but strategically beyond for third countries of interest.

Tip 5:  Learn how China is different

Your Chinese business can't be treated as an extension of your UK business or bolt on Europe. Americas, MENA, or Asia Pacific. Instead, set yourself upright that China is a new start-up business unit and resource it financially, with talent, and time-wise treat it as a new venture with a unique culture and action plan. Once you’ve got the beachhead then you can think think about consolidating, or merging, this business unit globally.

A co-opetition?

Now it's worth saying that I am not trying to convince Welsh businesses that China is an easy market, nor is it uncrackable In the world we are now in. Trading, and investing, with China is not a competition or friendly cooperation as we used to say in the early 1990s - but co-opetition. Where the competitive and geopolitical pressures can be glued together to recharge the global economies today.

The front line operators, meaning the Welsh businesses seeking to work closely with China, are the new Pioneers.  Indeed my dream is Wales as a nation can become a country of choice for Chinese investment and buyers of Wales-originated products and services.

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