“5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China”, With Henry Clough, Founder of Asian Absolute
“Right next to my computer screen is Omar Khayyam’s quote “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Each time I’ve achieved a personal goal I’ve looked back and seen that I didn’t appreciate the journey as much as I should have done. Achieving goals is important, but if most of your time is spent working towards them you’d better enjoy the process. Having this in my eyeline helps me to soak up the pressure and focus on the great things which each day brings.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Henry Clough. Henry is the founder and chairman of Asian Absolute, a translation and interpreting company focusing on East Asian language services. As Chairman he focuses on corporate and technology strategy and innovation, as well as continued support for key accounts and our global management team.
Q. Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
A. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1980s and first visited mainland China in 1991. After that, I Majored in Chinese at university and spent a year studying in Beijing in 1994. In 1998, at the age of 24, I registered my first company in China — a global recruitment agency.
Then came Asian Absolute, a translation services provider, founded by me in the UK in 2000. We registered Asian Absolute’s China subsidiary in Beijing in 2004 and grew it to a team of 25 within four years. Now we have offices on five continents and work with clients worldwide
Q. We know that it is not always easy for a foreigner to do business in China. Can you share an interesting story about a challenge that you faced, and how you overcame it?
A. Our worldwide teams are tightly integrated and collaborate across borders on a daily basis. It was necessary for our China team to be able to access the same databases, project management and production applications as our team in other countries. However, the Great Firewall of China has been a constant pain. Our experience has shown that what works one day may suddenly stop working or slow to a crawl the next, as the direction of the political wind changes.
We developed a multi-tiered solution to manage this, including installing a mirror of our main database and production server in our Beijing office, replicating in real time with the global server used by everyone outside China, FTP servers with several different providers in Beijing and some in Hong Kong, file transfer via QQ and WeChat, redirecting China users to special login pages for applications which use Google’s ReCaptcha (because Google is blocked in China), VPNs… I could go on.
I would never be bold enough to say we’ve overcome this particular challenge, but we’re managing the risk effectively.
Q. Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
A. As a complement to the translations provided by our human translators, we’re helping clients harness AI in the form of Machine Translation (MT).
From the myriad options now available we help clients to select the MT engine which is most suitable for their needs. Then we train the base engines up to a level where they provide usable output. This includes gathering high-quality bilingual data, cleaning and structuring it and processing the result to produce a much-improved, custom engine.
We also provide human post-editors to bring the MT output up to publication quality, plus a range of measurement services to quantify the productivity gains achieved by each engine
Q. What advice would you give to other business owners who do business in China, in order to help their employees thrive?
A. Make a special effort to integrate your China team into your global company culture. China is now such an important economy that there can be a tendency to become overly focused on the special nature of the domestic scene, especially if staff are cut off from web-based collaboration platforms by the Great Firewall of China. We all benefit from exposure to different markets and cultures, and us Europeans, in particular, can take for granted the cosmopolitan nature of our teams.
Q. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
A. Without a doubt Li Ruru, my first Chinese teacher at university. The daughter of a Shanghai opera star, Ruru was an obvious target during the Cultural Revolution and would tell us stories of her experience of having to sit on the floor during class, while the children of workers were allowed to sit on their desks. Yet despite this and all the other harsh treatment she endured, she communicated to us a sympathetic and pragmatic vision of China and, as well as helping me to fall in love with the language, she deserves credit for showing me how to maintain a positive attitude towards China no matter the challenges which this extraordinary country has thrown at me.
Q. What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?
A. Outbound tourism is already massive but it’s only just getting started. As China’s middle class grows and becomes even more affluent, the world will come face to face with how big China’s population actually is.
One in five people in the world is a citizen of China. But when you consider that many of the rest of us can’t afford to visit Paris, the Napa Valley or the Great Barrier Reef, it becomes clear that the proportion of tourists coming from China will be a game-changer. This is creating tremendous commercial opportunities both within China and overseas.
Q. We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?
A. It will pass. When domestic pressures mount within the USA from the many businesses harmed by the tariffs, I expect that China will quietly make sufficient concessions for President Trump to claim victory.
Fortunately, our business is well diversified geographically so we expect that any drop-off in work caused by a drop in USA-China trade will be offset by the affected companies turning to other countries to plug gaps in their supply chains. Perhaps we will see more Vietnamese and Bengali (the language of Bangladesh) to English and French and German to Chinese translations as US English to and from Chinese slows down a little.
Q. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Take the time to learn the history. The worldview of many Chinese people is heavily influenced by the tumultuous events of the 20th century, so an understanding of how modern-day China has been shaped will help you to be more sensitive to cultural and political factors. Why is it so important not to use a mainland Chinese translator to write your marketing copy for Hong Kong, for example? Putting modern-day China into the context of a much longer timeframe makes it easier to appreciate how the last few hundred years are an exception to the rule of China being a dominant world power, giving insights into how your Chinese clients and partners might see you and your actions.
2. Make sure you’re selling something that China doesn’t have. Ever since the Qianlong emperor wrote “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is, therefore, no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce” foreigners have struggled to find products to sell in China. The British even resorted to opium for lack of anything else. These days, if you’re selling a product or service which China lacks, such as Scotch whiskey, you might enjoy strong demand. If you’re selling something which a local provider can compete against, you will find it much, much harder.
3. Don’t get carried away by the “China is special” mantra. Many foreigners try so hard to keep an open mind when doing business in China that they accept behaviour and negotiating tactics that would be dismissed out of hand anywhere else in the world. Smart Chinese businesspeople understand and take advantage of this deference to The Chinese Way while respecting counterparts who show more resilience. Informal agreements with no written contract, securing deals with generous gifts and lavish entertainment and advance payments as a gesture of trust are bad ideas anywhere in the world. Just because it’s China doesn’t make it OK.
4. You can’t avoid the politics. Most people and businesses in China try to keep their heads down and avoid any involvement in politics. For a foreign company, this is especially important, but you will always be classified as an outsider. Whether it’s having to close your office early to make way for a rehearsal of a military display driving through the centre of the city, consumer boycotts because your government has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, or access to your web application being blocked, politics is guaranteed to interfere with your commercial activities and you had better get used to it.
5. Bring your sense of humour. China can be an infuriating place to do business. But you won’t get bored. Especially when you venture out of the top tier cities you will encounter bizarre situations and fascinating people with viewpoints you hadn’t imagined. Whether it’s quirky conversations that leave you scratching your head, being flash-mobbed by a staring crowd or finding yourself in a recreation of a French chateau, China will leave an indelible mark if you allow yourself to see the funny side.
Q. Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A. Right next to my computer screen is Omar Khayyam’s quote “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Each time I’ve achieved a personal goal I’ve looked back and seen that I didn’t appreciate the journey as much as I should have done. Achieving goals is important, but if most of your time is spent working towards them you’d better enjoy the process. Having this in my eyeline helps me to soak up the pressure and focus on the great things which each day brings.
Q. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea might trigger. :-)
A. The world needs more tolerance. Whether it’s religion, politics, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or plain old commercial disputes, we all need to be better at respecting other points of view. Get over yourself and love thy neighbour.