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June 8, 2016

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Benefits abound on both sides of relationship

JOHN Edwards, the British consul general in Shanghai who arrived last summer, is no stranger to China. He visited Beijing in 1998, only two years after his career in the Foreign Ministry began.

“I always wanted to travel, to live somewhere else and to see the world; and I have been doing that as a diplomat, but also I seem to keep coming back to China,” he told Shanghai Daily.

“Coming back to Beijing in 2012, and to Shanghai last year, was like coming to a completely different country, compared with when I visited in 1998, when the Terminal 2 of Beijing airport was not even built.”

He was standing in front of a bronze sculpture painted in the style of the British flag ­­— “MBLEM” by artist David Begbie. The 2014 art work is the first item that greets guests at the entrance of the British Consul General’s office.

It presents the United Kingdom in a style slightly different from what many older Chinese might expect. The sculpture is energetic, contemporary, exciting, creative and thoughtful, while at the same time slightly humorous — much like the young diplomat.

On the day he met with Shanghai Daily, Edwards jogged to the office in shorts and was changing into formal wear just before a photographer arrived to take his portrait in front of the sculpture. A dedicated runner, Edwards plans to start a costume marathon in Shanghai to raise money for child-related charity causes.

In recent years, British actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, among many others, have captured the hearts of young Chinese and shattered their stereotypical views. Not that long ago, many in China associated the UK with Jane Austen novels, stern gentlemen in top hats and other dated cultural depictions.

“Image has to be based on reality, and the reality is that the United Kingdom is a cutting-edge innovative country,” the consul general said proudly. Edwards named Adele, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Dominic West and others to his list of brilliant artists who have helped promote Britain’s image in China.

He also pointed to the self-deprecating and irreverent nature of British humor, another export for which the country is well known.

“British people are very good at lots of things,” he explained, “but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Talking about playing around with innovative ideas, he reminded Shanghai Daily not to forget to mention the upcoming cream tea party the consulate office will be throwing to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. The theme of the celebration will be “Alice in Wonderland.”

“We will have 800 people for the tea party, and we will break — no, we will smash — the current Guinness Record of 600,” he said excitedly.

Compelling culture

The consul general added that many young Chinese people appreciate the culture and innovative spirit of the UK because they have been to the country, whether to study or travel, and are aware of UK cultural products.

Currently, as many as 125,000 Chinese students are studying in the United Kingdom. What’s more, the country’s well-respected education system has been attracting Chinese students at increasingly younger ages.

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, celebrated through the “Shakespeare Lives” campaign, with hundreds of events around the world, including many Chinese cities, also opens a window into both traditional and contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare, an icon of British culture.

Among many other events, Sir Ian McKellen is coming next week to open “Shakespeare on Film,” a special program at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Working together

“It is important that with ‘Shakespeare Lives,’ we look forward as well as backward, presenting not only just what was in the history, but also what is cutting-edge and creative from the country today,” the consul general explained.

Such initiatives are a hallmark of British cultural diplomacy, said Edwards. He also added that the consulate is in the midst of seeking partnerships on several creative projects. One such partnership project coming later in the year to Shanghai is a traditional Chinese Kunqu opera version of “Macbeth.”

Of course, there is much more to the work of the consulate, and the UK’s relationship with China more generally, than just culture.

“People tend to look at the relationship and collaborations between two countries as bilateral,” Edwards said. “But increasingly, when UK works with China, we are working with China globally.”

The diplomat listed three major areas, trade and investment, economies of the future and scientific collaborations. By economies of the future, he referred to areas of collaboration that could allow both countries to be competitive for the next 10, 15 or 20 years. Such areas include climate change, financial services for the next century, overuse of antibiotics and green finance.

“When I think of China, and particularly Shanghai, and the UK, I see real substance to the relationship, especially when you look at what Shanghai wants to be and what the UK is strong at,” he further explained.

“You want to be a creative center of China; and a huge amount of gaming, films, TV, post-production, animation and other parts of the creative industry are coming out of London. You want to be an innovative center of China; while four of the top 10 universities in the world in terms of research come out of the United Kingdom. You are China’s financial center and wish to be a global one; while the United Kingdom was voted last year to be the best global financial center.”

He also listed green finance, asset management, insurance exchange, education, scientific research, outward investment, technology, and many other industries as areas where Shanghai and Britain could form productive partnerships.

“Just like how our policy works, many British companies are already here and are expanding their footprint in China, because if they want to remain a global company in 20 years’ time, they need to be collaborating with China,” he concluded.

Q: How did you come into the world of diplomacy and how many years have you been a diplomat?

It has been 20 years now. I always wanted to travel around the world, to live somewhere else and to see the world, and I don’t regret becoming a diplomat.

Q: What has been the best and worst thing about being a diplomat?

The best is that you meet lots of genuine experts, a lot of people who change the world ­— scientists, artists and entrepreneurs. The worst is that you are never the expert, but of course, you can help the experts. It’s quite humbling.

Q: You speak very good Chinese and you worked for a few times here in China, do you still feel cultural shock at times?

I think the important thing about being a diplomat is being able to put your feet in other people’s shoes. Lots of people say my Chinese is good, and I am a China expert, but I can never be a China expert. None of us is a China expert, not even Chinese people, because you have 5,000 years of history, and it’s an enormous country.

I’m comfortable in China, but the depth of my ignorance about this country are also immense. Socrates said true wisdom is to know how little you know. I may not be that wise, but I have a hint of how little I fully and really understand about this immense country and its culture.

Q: As a diplomat, you travel a lot, what is the one item that you can’t leave behind?

Nothing. I travel light.

Q: What is your motto for life?

I don’t have one, but if I can choose between two, one is to be kind. I think kindness is a much underrated virtue and I wish if you go to the airport, you take a look at the bookstore there, you can find a book on how to be kind, rather than all the books about how to be successful or how to make big money.

The other one is to try to put yourself into other people’s shoes. Everybody thinks of themselves as immensely complex people, with a whole range of desires, feelings and experiences. We often look at other people and reduce them to simplicity. But it is very difficult to fully understand another human being. And other people are endlessly fascinating.

Q: What is your favorite place in Shanghai?

I like this area in Yangpu District, a low-profile street with karaoke and bars. People often consider Shanghai a very international city, but it’s actually a very Chinese city if you go outside of the former French concession, go outside of Anfu Road. I came to China to see the Chinese part of it.

When I left China 15 years ago, I was worried all these old houses will be demolished, but after I came back, I realized many of them were quite well preserved and people are doing interesting things with them.


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