Opinion | Arrogance in Duo: Challenges in UK-China Collaboration in the Creative Industries

Any sustainable collaboration starts with communication, but it is never an easy task to achieve. As we will expect to see an increase of delegation from China to visit the UK (and vice versa) to expand two countries’ collaboration in the creative industries, some observations may help British companies to be better prepared for their future negotiation.

One of the challenges that we face currently is what I call the “arrogance in duo”. This entanglement is due to several factors. The first is the complicated history between the UK and China, the two Opium Wars and their associated events which in my opinion, have yet been openly addressed and reflected by either country as a diplomatic dialogue. In addition to this, the stereotypical Communist image of China continues to linger in mainstream media and the public discourse in the UK. The immediate responses to any negative events happen in China by the British press neither help to improve its public’s impression nor their knowledge of this fast changing country. Particularly, an alternative of a more balanced and analytical rhetoric is not often to be seen.

Because of this highly political context, the UK seems to maintain an Empire attitude toward China. To some extent, such old fashion attitude is what may stop higher officials to see China as an equal partner in both trade and foreign relations. The recognition of the Communist Party of China by the UK has always been a pure economic interest. This attitude needs to be changed, as Britain’s modern trade with China is in fact obliged to certain historical responsibilities.

Meanwhile, delegations which come to visit the UK from China are mostly funded by the Chinese government nowadays. While most Chinese citizens have experienced the country’s rapid transformation in the last decade, the shame of being invaded by Britain during the Opium Wars turns into another extreme, a sentiment of arrogance. This is understandable, as for those who are aware of this history unconsciously wish to show that China is now a stronger nation which can no longer be insulted. This sentiment is being further encouraged through the Chinese government’s recent celebration of the civilization’s tradition and heritage. The Chinese delegations, quite often visit the UK under this sentiment, to gesture an over dramatic confidence in order to cover the underneath shame. In this context, to some Chinese delegates, the UK seems to them now a backward country when it comes to infrastructure, totally incomparable to China’s recent achievements. Of course, this immediate reaction is based on a lack of knowledge about the depth of British heritage, culture and what the UK can offer to support China’s further opening up and development on many levels.

In short, from my observation, visiting delegates from both countries tend to look down on each other due to the factors explained above, while the core historical issues have yet to be resolved neither reflected. Such tension does not contribute to any conversation when it comes to collaborations in the creative industries, where the exchange of ideas is crucial to support any success.

UK partners will encounter the issue of “arrogance in duo” more and more often in the future. In order to achieve any win-win scenario, this is something that we need to bear in mind and be prepared for future negotiation. British creative companies need to position themselves strategically and to showcase their best talent in creativity. They also need to learn how to turn the inevitable arrogant attitude form their Chinese counterparts into a more positive conversation, and to establish trust by understanding where that attitude comes from.

Certainly, if both sides think that they are the best and can do better, then what is the point to collaborate? But let us believe that these not very pleasant encounters are lessons to be learned, a training section in people’s diplomacy which will contribute to both countries continuous opening up if handled wisely with mutual understanding.

Hiu Man Chan is a researcher specialising in creative industries collaboration between the UK and China, currently affiliated with Birmingham City University. She is Series Editor of Intellect China Library and columnist for the UK-Chinese Times.