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Where did I start in China?

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Graham Perry
Graham Perry
Experienced Arbitration Lawyer | China & Chinese Business Affairs | Public Speaker/Lecturer.

The focus of this article is to explain how I became involved in China. Without being self-centred, people who follow my website do ask me the question. What triggered my interest? How have I come to write so regularly about China? What took me to China and When?

The short summary begins with my first eight week visit in August/September 1965 but the story really begins in 1953 when my father, Jack Perry, became the first Western businessman to visit China. At the time, the significance of that visit was not appreciated, and yet with every succeeding year, the arrival of my father, on his own, at Shumchun (now Shenzhen)  on the Chinese side of the border with Hong Kong in June 1953 assumes growing importance. Almost four years earlier, on 1 October 1949, Mao Tsetung, in Tiananmin Square, had proclaimed the inauguration of the new Peoples Republic of China and the effect of such an event still reverberates throughout the world seventy-one years on. But what brought my father to China? and why Jack Perry?.

There is a background. My father was born in Bethnal Green, London in 1915. He was the youngest of four children  – two of whom (his older brother, Joseph, in 1920 and his elder sister, Golda, in 1932) both died from tuberculosis. His family was Jewish and his own father was a tailor. The home and upbringing were non-political. Things changed when Sir Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists, complete with Blackshirts and Jackboots, and attacked Jews on the streets of the East End. My father was quickly politicised. The Rabbis did not provide leadership and, merely advocated a low-level response in the hope that the danger would pass. It didn’t. The threat increased. There was more violence, and resistance was provided, in the main, by the fledgling Communist Party whose “stand up and fight” policy won over many of the East End people including Jews. That was the start – my father had been radicalised by on-the-street experiences.

My father, who started his working life as a warehouseman, became a textile manufacturer and, after the War, he promoted increased East-West Trade and found himself Secretary of the UK Delegation (29 people) to the International Economic Conference held in Moscow in April 1952. The Delegation included MP’s, Industrialists, Academics and was led by Lord Boyd-Orr – an acknowledged world leader on Nutrition. A Delegation of 26 also attended from China and was led by Nan Hancheng, Lei Yenmin, Chi Jaoting, Shi Chiang, and Lu Hsuchang. Aside from the main work of the Conference, trade discussions took place between the two Delegations leading to a China-UK Trade Agreement. There also took place a separate meeting between my father and Chi Jaoting, Shi Chiang and Lu Hsuchang when it was suggested to my father that he form a company in the UK to promote trade and business between China and the UK. My father was taken aback saying “I don’t know what a Bill of Lading looks like and I have never operated a Letter of Credit”. Lu Hsuchang said that the Chinese side was similarly lacking expertise but “we will hold each other’s hands, and learn together”.

At this time my father, still a director of a London textile company, was excited even if the magnitude of the challenge gave him cause for self-doubt. China had confidence in him but did he have confidence in himself? Was he up to the challenge? He was married with five children – aged two months to eleven years. Could he/dare he make the change from a business he did know to a business he didn’t know?

As my father records in his autobiography ‘From Brick Lane to the Forbidden City”, Lu Hsuchang warned him;

It is inevitable that your company will be attacked as pro-Chinese, Red. You, personally, will be criticised, quite strongly. The US authorities will recognise your activities as a threat to their policy – as indeed you will be. Life will not always be comfortable; but your success will be dependent on the support you are able to muster from other companies and institutions in Britain and other countries so the new company has two objectives: to build a strong profitable business relationship with the Chinese government foreign trade organisations and to participate meaningfully in the struggle to defeat the US embargo policy.”

My father recorded his thoughts and responses;

“The proposal was tremendously attractive – it opened up for me an entirely new career in an area of the world of which I knew little – yet a challenge beyond anything I had contemplated. Could I do it? Would I be able to stand up under new pressures? What about the political side? Might I have to suffer some character assassination, be called an opportunist? All this I felt I could handle, but the most important question of all was financial security for my family. Could that security be preserved in the new circumstances?

Doubts subsided, he took the plunge and aged 37 years old, he returned to London and terminated his links with the dress business and threw himself into trade, foreign exchange, letters of credit and shipping.

This change led to my father visiting China annually for 6 weeks for the next 20 years and regularly up to his death in 1996. Some people dismiss others’ achievements by saying “he was lucky, he was in the right place at the right time”. I do not see it that way. My father was selected because, despite being forced to leave school at age of 14 to bring in a wage to supplement the families troubled finances, and without a completed education, he worked hard to develop his talents and skills. He read, discussed, argued and debated until he could hold his own with Professors, Peers, MP’s, Industrialists and Trade Unionists. He created his own luck.

I was one of the beneficiaries of my father’s endeavours. I was his oldest son and remember many of the events and the personalities in the early 1950’s, particularly Chi Jaoting. And this  enabled me to access China at a crucial stage of its developments – before the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, even the formation of the Communes – and here I am referring to the key years 1952-1955. And now in 2021 I look back and consider myself fortunate to have been so close to my father and to have experienced the excitement, the tensions, the setbacks and the successes. It put me on a path from which I have never departed – that is to remain close to developments in China and to understand the story as it happens, as it unravels – not as a Party member, not as a Chinese citizen, not as a Yes man. There always has to be distance. This is China’s history, China’s story, China’s development and its impact upon the world. Those of us who watch, observe, interpret, debate and discuss  are challenged by China. Its progress – with eyes wide open – has been incredible to witness from the margins, and it leaves me with a desire to update my father’s reactions, as events occur and China continues along a path to prosperity and stability.

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