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August 2, 2009

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Life, games for a China player

CLINTON Dines came to China in 1979 to teach English and dug in to eventually head one of the world's biggest miner's local operations. Ding Yining reports.

When the 20-year-old Australian staggered through customs into Shenzhen in February 1979, it would have been impossible to predict the path his life would take in China over the next 30 years, ultimately rising to become China president of the global mining giant BHP Billiton.

Clinton Dines became interested in Asian history and focused on Chinese economics at university in Brisbane.

The opportunity to visit China came after his graduation from Griffith University through a postgraduate program which brought 12 people to China for two years teaching in local colleges. "More than 60 students applied and handed in their essays. The Zhuanjia Ju (literally meaning the bureau in charge of foreign experts) approved 12 of us and that's how I came to China," he said.

Two of them were allocated to Nanjing Teacher's College and, as unqualified teachers, they had to teach 28 contact hours per week. Foreign language teaching material was hard to find so they resorted to books by the likes of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain from the college's library.

Food variety and quantity was still extremely limited by quota at the end of 1970s - there were no aerated soft drinks, beef was not obtainable for several months and coffee only came from visiting friends.

For most students and teachers at the college, Dines was the first foreigner they had encountered.

"My Chinese friends were chatting one day and said 'jian ding' (literally meaning hard and firm) was exactly the term that described my character and it has become a part of me since then," he recalled.

He has spent most of the ensuing years based in Shanghai and working in China, mainly engaged in business negotiations with all kinds of customers and government officials through roles at Jardine Matheson, Santa Fe Transport Group, and a venture capital company. He spent nearly 20 years with BHP Billiton and was instrumental in establishing the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China.

BHP Billiton's sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics raised his public profile as head of the mining company as well as promoter of the big sponsorship deal.

Dines' China story can be traced back to when the country first initiated its reform and opening-up policy.

"Every foreigner transposed into an alien environment has a period of adjustment, a period of dislocation and then a crisis of some description, varying from mild depression to full-blown nervous breakdown. This is still the case with many newly arrived expats, in the relative comfort of Shanghai," he wrote in a recent collection of anecdotes about China.

An English publisher asked Dines to write the story of his life in China in the past 30 years. "It (2008) has been a big year," he wrote. His article, together with 12 other chapters of memories and insights from foreign business people in China in the past decades, appeared in the book "My Thirty Years in China."

"What I wanted readers to know was how I reflected on my early years in China, instead of complaining about my very beginning in the country," he said.

Writing the chapter gave Dines another chance to tell a story about his experiences and also to organize his thoughts about what they meant to him.

"I don't want to be another foreigner complaining," he said. "I don't want to make strong judgements. What I want to do is to contribute to China.

"I can have many things to complain about if I compare China to Australia." But he doesn't. Instead his experiences in China have provided him with opportunities to understand the country.

When Dines and his wife chatted with foreigners who had just arrived in China, they found they were always complaining about what was unavailable. "Instead we always tell our friends: Hey! You know what they have got now?" he said. "Each time we get something we think that's great!"

He believes he is lucky to be a foreigner able to observe China, to witness the changes through a privileged perspective.

"You don't have to take part in things that ordinary Chinese people are doing, you can participate a little bit, but most of the time, remain a privileged observer," he said, attributing his understanding of Chinese society to this perspective.

"To judge something as not satisfactory and complain is easy, but to push forward and change something is difficult," he said.

He chose to stay on, first in Nanjing, then in Beijing and other cities including Shanghai. He talked to Shanghai Daily at his office in One Corp Avenue in Xintiandi.

Given his corporate experience in China, he finds it easy to understand the thinking and actions of government officials who are his contemporaries around the late 1950s and early 1960s age group. He knows their priorities and how to work out problems with them.

Dines' significant role in developing BHP Billiton's business in China and the company's contributions to events such as the Beijing Olympics have been widely reported. They include his public pronouncements about the mining company's value and China's significance to its business.

BHP Billiton has been involved in complicated relationships with Chinese customers and Dines believes the Olympics was a good opportunity to promote the company's value.

He made the proposal for BHP Billiton to sponsor the Beijing Olympics around 1999 and it took him six years to complete the deal.

"The event was important, not just to the government, but to everyone in China," he said.

Apart from providing the metals for the Olympic medals, the mining giant also took community activities to those who didn't have a chance to attend the event.

He and his colleagues all got a chance to take part in the mini-Olympic games of community programs. "From my personal perspective, the experience of being a part of the Olympics was precious," Dines said.

The Games, however, were just one of the projects that BHP Billiton has been involved with in recent years. A work colleague who was familiar with the Panda research center in Sichuan Province proposed that the company support it and Dines agreed.

"What do you leave behind is what we ask in evaluating a project," he said. The panda research is an ongoing legacy and apart from adopting a pair of baby panda, other project funds go to protection of the animal, especially after the May 12 earthquake.

Dines met his Spanish wife in China and they've got a daughter and a son. Around 2002, the family decided to adopt another child so they selected their youngest daughter from an orphanage in Hefei, Anhui Province.

There he witnessed a severe lack of staff. The few nannies only had time to feed the babies and change their clothes, with no time left to nurture and play with them. "That was a big impact on us," he said.

Dines subsequently looked at several charity organizations and decided to fund the "Half the Sky Foundation," which is engaged in supporting the training of nannies.

Unemployed women were trained by the foundation to become nannies and sent to work in orphanages. "We think that's a very simple idea which directly helps orphans," he added.

His wife now works full time for the organization.

All of his three children were born and raised in China but now spend their summer holidays in Spain, their mother's country, and Christmas in Australia. "We think it's very important for them to have a connection with both Australia and Spain," he said.

He believes Australia is a good place to grow up, where people aren't very rich but have good values. His small hometown in Queensland gave him a clear sense of identity and basic rights and wrongs.

Dines stepped down as head of BHP Billiton China last month. "I'm a little bit tired to think of future plans," he said.

"I'll take a good vacation before I decide what to do next.

"I was almost doing five jobs at once," he sighed, referring to the huge pressures of the job.

"I'm not spending enough time with my family and I'll get a good vacation in the next few months with my children," he said.


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