Getting down to business in Shanghai

14th December 2007 at 00:00

Business studies students from Perth High went on a trade mission to Shanghai to learn about business and Chinese culture. Su Clark reports on their epic journey. It all began like any normal school trip; 22 senior pupils and five teachers off on a long-haul trip that would change their lives. It even had the delayed flights and missing passport crisis that add grey hairs and stress for all teachers.

But this trip was different. To start with, the delayed flight to Amsterdam didn't result in them missing the connection through to Shanghai Pudong airport in China, and the missing passport was found with minutes to spare in a seat pocket of the first plane and rushed across the huge Amsterdam airport to the almost hysterical group waiting to board for Pudong.

No, this was no ordinary school trip and Fiona Keating, depute head at Perth High, visibly bristles at the suggestion. "This was a trade mission, one of the first by Scottish school pupils to China," she explains carefully. "It was not a cultural trip. Its focus was business."

She even brandishes the signed letter, nicely laminated, from First Minister Alex Salmond, wishing the pupils a good trip. Not many schools get those.

The 22 S6 Perth pupils and five teachers spent the week in Shanghai, studying how business is done there. There were cultural trips and even a visit to a school, but the main focus was on investigating commerce, from how Scottish companies are building their presence in the country to how Chinese banks are reaching back into Britain.

It took more than three years' planning, a huge amount of time and energy from the two main people driving it forward - Mrs Keating and Meryl James, quality improvement officer at Perth and Kinross local authority - plus enough fundraising and cap-in-hand begging to bring the cost within the range of all Perth High pupils who wanted to go.

"If I told you the original cost was pound;1,000 per pupil and they ended up paying pound;450, you'll understand how much we raised by fundraising, through the support of local business, or by the special deals we were so kindly given in Shanghai," says Mrs Keating, back at school just two days after her return and not showing a hint of jet lag.

"Yet we were able to stay at the four-star Equatorial Hotel. One of the pupils asked me if it was true that in China toilets were just holes in the ground. I told her we were staying somewhere a bit posher than that."

When Mrs Keating and Dr James first began hatching their plan to take senior pupils somewhere that few pupils had gone before, the aim was to give them the opportunity to do work placements. The two women even went to China earlier this year to attend trade fairs in Shanghai and Hong Kong and make direct links with businesses prepared to host Perthshire pupils.

The Scottish Council for Development and Trade part-funded the visit and, along with the British Council, helped organise events to bring them together with Chinese companies. This bolstered earlier links between Perth and Kinross and China, fostered by Dr James on a visit to China the previous summer as a guest of the Chinese government.

While there she met Dinghua Wang, director of the Chinese Ministry of Education, who was keen to broker improved trade and educational links between his country and Scotland.

But despite their efforts, Mrs Keating and Dr James learned on their return that Perth and Kinross local authority assessed the risk too high. The trip was scaled down from work placements to trade mission. Instead the pupils, mostly business studies students, were provided with a packed schedule that included a business-oriented trip and a cultural trip each day.

Special guests were also invited to join them to provide further insights into Chinese business and culture. An ex-teacher from Perth High, Betty Barr, came to meet them with her Chinese husband, George. She spent two years, from 1943-45, in an internment camp, along with 1,800 other foreigners including JG Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun.

They also met Julie Zhou, a Chinese national who leads the Scottish Enterprise Office. As a student, she was present at the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, an incident that has been wiped from official Chinese history.

"We were disappointed that the work placements didn't happen," says Mrs Keating. "But I could see the local authority's point and, indeed, when we were there, I think the pupils were glad we did stay together as a group."

"We definitely felt safer sticking with the teachers," says Fraser Stewart, 17, who has decided to do business management at university, following the trip.

"One day we went to Nanjing Road, which is the equivalent to Oxford Street in London," says Roddy Webster, also 17, who plans to do business studies at Stirling or sport management.

"It was chaotic, that's the only way I can describe it. We were divided into groups of five plus a teacher to wander round and I'm really happy that the teacher was with us. There are lots of people, like beggars trying to sell you fakes. They were really persistent and kept hassling us. It was a bit threatening."

Before the trip, the pupils had been given some lessons in Mandarin. "We could say no thanks in Chinese and that really shocked them, but it didn't stop them," adds Roddy.

More positively, the students were able to witness more than one side of commerce in China and to begin to see the political influences of communism at work.

"I found it really bureaucratic and formal, compared to Scotland," says Fraser. "You decide what you want, then one employee fills in a receipt and you have to take it to another to pay. It is part of the process in China, where jobs are shared to keep unemployment down."

"You also have to learn to haggle very quickly," says Ben Urquhart, 17, who had decided to apply to Edinburgh University to study Chinese and business before the trip was organised. "I have been to Asia before, so I understood it a bit. But it was a real education learning to haggle so much. It's a good skill to have for my future dealings with China."

Although the pupils couldn't go into businesses individually and work within departments, they were given an insight through the arranged meetings and visits.

Their first trip was to the Bund, the financial quarter of Shanghai, a city of 19 million inhabitants. The Bund was initially a British settlement, but later, when the British and American settlements were combined, it became the International Settlement. A building boom at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century turned it into a major financial hub of East Asia. Now, after a brief blip when communism pushed the financiers out of the country, the Bund is once again the financial heartland of the city.

On another day, the pupils were given a presentation by William Hall, the general manager of the Equatorial Hotel, on hospitality and management within China.

"This was excellent, because we were given a tour and got to see the whole Hotel Babylon thing behind the scenes, and William explained all the different roles of his heads of departments," says Mrs Keating. "But he also went beyond management in the hotel to describe the structures and skills needed for any management position in China."

The Equatorial gave Perth High the rooms at an enviously low rate, around 30 per cent less. And, on St Andrew's Day, not only did the staff put on a special meal, they also brought in Scottish musicians who live in China to play at an ex-pat meal organised for the Saturday.

It wasn't the only special treatment the group got. "The Chinese are very keen to promote relations with Scotland, and especially the young people," says Dr James, explaining the enthusiasm they met with. She is confident that every group of pupils will be met like this and is already planning another visit with Perth High or another Perth and Kinross school in two years' time.

This attitude was evident in the reaction of other companies who sent their top people to meet the pupils. The vice-president of the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank) came and spoke to the pupils, describing the origins of the bank, which pre-date the infamous Opium Wars, and how it works in a global context.

"It was really beneficial to be shown how hierarchical Chinese society and, therefore, business still is," says Ben. "For instance, when we met new people, sometimes they would greet Mr Scott, Mrs Keating, Dr James and myself and then ignore everyone else."

Mr Scott is Jim Scott, headteacher of Perth High, while Ben is head boy and so they, along with Mrs Keating and Dr James, were deemed the most important people of the group.

The visitors were taken to the British Consulate to meet the consul, Carma Elliot. She detailed how Britain and China were building links and how the consulate supports British companies in Shanghai.

One such company is the Perth-based Edrington Group which exports Famous Grouse and other high-end single malts to China. Besides supporting the school in the lead-up to the trip, Edrington representatives also met pupils at their hotel to explain how they ran their business in technical terms.

One of the last business-related visits was to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall to show how Shanghai has developed over the past few decades and what is planned for the future.

The World Expo in 2010 is being held in Shanghai and the city is building a whole new city on an island that will allow a few more million people to move in.

"It is mind boggling," says Roddy.

By the time they flew back to Britain, the pupils of Perth High were not only more aware of Chinese culture, they were also much more versed in the language of business. And with China the fastest growing economy, predicted soon to be the fourth largest, they know if they can speak the language of business with a Mandarin accent, they will be well prepared to work with China.

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