(Corrects title in 10th paragraph of story originally published July 28.)
July 28 (Bloomberg) -- Sebastian Powell, a new graduate of Britain’s Nottingham University, spends three evenings a week learning Chinese at the London School of Economics.
He studies business Chinese on Monday and China’s legal system on Wednesday. On Friday night, instead of hanging out at a pub, he sees a Chinese film to “learn more about the culture.”
“China is the future,” says the 25-year-old Powell, who wears a pink shirt and yellow suspenders and starts his training as an accountant with Deloitte LLP in September.
Interest in learning Chinese has surged among U.K. companies and professionals as firms cut costs at home and expand in China. HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe’s largest bank, said in June it will cut 700 employees in the U.K., a month after saying it plans to add 2,000 employees in China and Singapore over the next five years. Burberry Group Plc, Britain’s largest luxury retailer, saw store sales in China increase 30 percent in the second quarter, twice as much as elsewhere. The U.K. is China’s second-biggest trading partner in Europe behind Germany, and Prime Minister David Cameron said on June 27 he expects bilateral trade to double to $100 billion by 2015.
Almost 100,000 Britons are learning Chinese, 54 U.K. universities have Chinese courses and seven of them have Chinese majors, according to the Chinese embassy in London. Sixteen percent of British state schools taught Chinese in 2010, up from 4 percent in 2006, according to CILT, the National Centre for Languages in the U.K. The number of independent schools in England teaching Chinese rose to 37 percent in 2010 from 18 percent four years earlier, the center said. The Chinese government had 322 Confucius Institutes, the nation’s language and culture promotion agency, in 96 countries by the end of 2010, including 13 in the U.K.
“Demand for Mandarin is rising dramatically in the U.K.,” said Katharine Carruthers, director of the Chinese program with Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, a network that includes 90 percent of English secondary schools. “Some schools cut their European languages to set up Chinese departments. If British kids want to be a global citizen, speaking Chinese gives them a way to do that.”
The Confucius Institute at the London School of Economics, funded in part by U.K. banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered Plc, was the world’s first focused on teaching Chinese and China’s business culture to the business community. Started in 2006 with about 20 students, it now has more than 100. The institute’s instructors also teach at companies such as HSBC, Norton Rose LLP, and Ernst & Young LLP.
A statue of Confucius, the philosopher born in 551 B.C., stands at the entrance, a gift of the Chinese government. The institute’s first student was Stephen Green, HSBC’s former chairman and now Cameron’s U.K. trade minister. “He decided to do so as a role model so that more people will follow,” said Hong Lu, the institute’s director.
Lu spends four mornings a week at HSBC’s London headquarters, teaching one-on-one classes to senior executives. The bank also has a weekly HSBC Chinese Club, where other workers can study the language and business culture.
“HSBC has its roots in greater China, so a lot of people here have an interest in China to start with, and many of them anticipate working in Asia or China,” said Alex Hungate, HSBC’s group general manager and chief executive officer, Singapore, who began studying Chinese six years ago. “There is both an interest and a purpose in learning.”
HSBC’s origins date to 1865, when it operated as the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corp. to finance trade in opium, silk and tea. Today, it focuses on emerging markets and gets about a third of its operating profit from Hong Kong. The bank has more than 5,000 employees in China.
Hungate, 45, joined HSBC in 2007 as the head of its consumer-banking unit, which accounts for one-third of the bank’s pretax profit, after leaving Reuters Group Plc as its managing director in Asia Pacific. “He is the most diligent student, and the one that I feel the most proud of,” Lu said.
Learning Chinese hasn’t been easy, said Hungate, who moved to Singapore in 2010 to head HSBC’s operation. He found two things difficult: it doesn’t have an alphabet and it has different tones. Chinese has four tones, and slight differences can carry completely different meanings. Hungate had to memorize Chinese words one by one in the beginning.
“The only way is to keep on studying them,” said Hungate, who also speaks German and French. “There is no shortcut.”
In addition to teaching the language, the Confucius Institute focuses on the culture and etiquette of doing business in China. Western entrepreneurship doesn’t immediately connect with Confucius values, which emphasize hierarchy over equality and collectivism over individualism, said Dong Zhicheng, an associate manager at the institute.
Those values manifest themselves in many customs in formal occasions that can be daunting for Westerners, Dong said. He recalls a time when a top executive gave an expensive clock to his Chinese business partner while negotiating a deal in London. The Chinese executive threw it into the River Thames after the event. The reason: in China, giving a clock to someone can have the connotation of attending that person’s funeral.
Manners at the dinner table can be crucial and confusing for those doing business in China, Dong said.
When being seated, the most important people need to face the entrance, Dong said. He cautions his students not to leave chopsticks stuck in the rice bowl when eating as only prisoners facing death penalty would do that in ancient China. They also need to pay attention to the difference between serving wine and tea: wine is poured until the glass is full; stop when the cup is 70 percent full with tea.
Powell, the Nottingham graduate, said one valuable lesson he learned was to give and receive business cards with two hands as a sign of respect.
“I hope I can help bridge Western business in China, or vice versa,” said Powell, whose uncle’s family once had a merchant-trading firm in Shanghai, shipping textiles to England.
While Confucius taught that it is best to learn things slowly, most Western executives learn what they need quickly, Dong said. “They are very pragmatic and very direct,” he said.
Hungate said Green, then the bank’s chairman, didn’t know he was learning Chinese at first. When an HSBC colleague left London for Asia, friends gathered to write farewell dedications in a book. Hungate wrote four Chinese words: “Ma Dao Cheng Gong,” which means “Horse Arrives, Success Comes,” to the colleague, who was born in the year of horse. Green noticed his inscription, and they had a brief conversation in Chinese.
“The most enjoyable part is to talk with colleagues in their native language,” Hungate said. “When they don’t have to adapt to a different culture, they are more natural.”
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