Alistair Michie

Alistair Michie: “Use ‘history as a mirror’ and build a bridge of communication”

An Interview with Alistair Michie, Honorary Secretary of 48 Group Club, UK.  Alistair Michie has been committed to promoting deeper communication and cooperation between UK and China for almost twenty years.

Confucius Institute Reporter Sun Ying 本刊记者 孙颖

Confucius Institute Reporter
Sun Ying
本刊记者 孙颖
In the 1950s during the Cold War Period 48 independent British leaders from the private business sector showed great courage in breaking through the embargo against China imposed by the Western World; their actions were the catalyst that started the first trade between the UK and new China and this gained them the honour of being called “Icebreakers”. More than half a century has passed. Today the 48 Group Club of UK originally established by the “Icebreakers” is still playing an important role in promoting Sino-UK cultural, economic and trade exchanges.

As the Honorary Secretary of the 48 Group Club, Mr. Alistair Michie has been committed to promoting deeper communication and cooperation between UK and China for almost twenty years. During that time he has worked in and travelled to 28 of the Chinese provinces and regions; through such experience means Mr. Michie ranks among the leading Western specialists in China Studies. In addition, he is working hard advising how to introduce China Studies into the curriculum of UK schools so as to promote educational and cultural exchanges between the two nations.

Recently, he accepted to do an interview with Confucius Institute. His penetrating views, witty language and modest attitude gave the interviewer a deep impression. During the interview, with great clarity he revealed his passion for building understanding of China to people’s worldwide by sharing with us his personal stories about his experiences in China and with Chinese people.

Alistair Michie


Reporter: When did you show your first interest in China?

Alistair Michie: My first interest in China was triggered in 1990s. At that time, I was working in Malaysia and Vietnam, knowing nothing about China. Indeed, my school and university education did not give me any knowledge about this country. After I started my career, I had the opportunity to work with some Chinese colleagues, who aroused my curiosity about China. In 1993 I persuaded my boss to allow me to do a project in China, which sent me on my first trip to the country.

Reporter: What is your greatest point of interest in China?

Alistair Michie: The Chinese his­tory. I am fascinated by studying the 5,000-year history of China. China has a very famous idiom, namely, ‘using history as a mirror.’ Enlightened by this idiom, I have learnt, from the per­spective of history, to understand what China is like now and have a better idea where it is heading. For instance, China has experienced the most funda­mental changes over the past 30 years. The answer to the question why China has changed so much just lies in its history.

Alistair Michie
The 48 Group Club signed an agreement with a regional international trade promotion bureau.


Reporter: Talking about history, what’s your comment on the “icebreaking journey” made by the pioneers of the 48 Group Club of UK in 1950s?

Alistair Michie: The 48 Group Club can be traced back to the Korean War period 60 years ago when US, UK and their allies imposed the trade em­bargo against China. Though the em­bargo was not accepted unanimously within UK, though, of course, most people supported the British Govern­ment action to impose the embargo. However, the embargo was broken due to the 1953 visit to China made by 48 British businessmen, which ended the trade barrier. The 48 business lead­ers had tremendous difficulties in the process, including the travel difficulties and the huge hostility against them in Britain and the USA.

However, they strongly believed what they were doing was right; they thought China, as an important na­tion, did not deserve isolation from the world. I don’t think they could possi­bly have imagined they were laying the foundation for trade, which ended up helping this nation become the world’s largest exporter. Even when I first came here in 1993, I never imagined that China would change so much within 20 years.

Today, life is much easier in many ways. However, the world we live in is perhaps far less secure than what it was in 1953. The sluggish economy in the United States and Europe, for example, could lead to a very rapid rise in the unemployment rate, thus creat­ing millions of very angry people. And I believe such anger could be turned against emerging economies like China. Therefore, it is vital to build bridges of understanding, so we can find ways to alleviate the possible of such hostility.

Alistair Michie
In October 2011, Alistair M. Michie, visited and gave an address at the Confucius Institute Headquarters.

Reporter: What kind of role do you think language studying and education play in cultural exchange? Why are you working hard to introduce China stud­ies into the curriculums in many British schools?

Alistair Michie: Language is abso­lutely crucial in cultural exchange, in particular in this globalized world when the economy of US and Europe looks so fragile. While China is rising, the dialogue and exchange constitute the only solution to preventing other countries from misinterpreting China. The history of the world, in particular the history of Europe in the past 150 years, is filled with such examples. In Europe there used to be no dialogue between nations, which led to igno­rance of each other’s cultures. Such ignorance easily can be turned into fear, and fear can be quickly trans­formed into wars. Let us pray, we do not repeat the mistake. I have long been concerned about the UK’s lack in understanding China. China Studies are completely absent from the British school curriculum. Yes, there has been a lot of progress in recent years in the teaching of Mandarin. The Confucius Institutes and Hanban are now gain­ing influence in the world. But we must have a clear mind. In UK, there are 20,000 teachers teaching French as a language in contrast to less than 300 teachers teaching Chinese. So, we have to admit the language teaching of Mandarin in British schools is just at its early stage. And what worries me most is that the language is being taught out of the cultural context. It is actually very difficult to stimulate the interest of British kids in learning Chinese if they do not understand why they have to learn the language. As China grows stronger, this nation will inevitably become an important part in their life. So, I have long been working to find ways of getting China studies integrated into the UK school curriculum. And I am still working on it today.

Reporter: What do you think of the role that Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters has played in the interna­tional cultural exchange? How can this role be better played?

Alistair Michie: Hanban is a leading player in Chinese public diplomacy, which involves the non-governmental arena and enhances cross-cultural un­derstanding. So, Hanban has played a very important role in this field. Based on my observation while working in China over the past 19 years, com­munication in this country is very much what I call propaganda style where messages are directed and there is zero engagement with the intended audience. There is little attempt to translate Chinese into the native lan­guage of other countries. Also with propaganda style there is no working in teams with foreigners to create mes­sages with maximum impact, you only work with your Chinese colleagues. That’s why I have proposed the Theory of International Reputation Manage­ment. If that Theory is widely adopted within Hanban, they will have much-improved efficiency in global commu­nication. In the mean time, Hanban needs to look at other public diplo­macy organizations like the BBC. The BBC was founded in the 1930s, and is now one of the most authoritative and well-known brands in the world. I know that the BBC is not popular among some Chinese people because they believe it takes an unfair and bi­ased stance. But if you look at it with an open and critical approach, study how these international organizations are operated and find the best possible way of bridging across the cultures, you will benefit greatly.

Reporter: The premise for bridging across the cultures is full understanding of their differences. What do you think the biggest cultural difference between the Chinese culture and Western culture is?

Alistair Michie: I think there are re­ally no differences between peoples. I’ve spent over 19 years wandering around China. As a foreigner, I think human beings are the same. One crucial differ­ence between China and the rest of the world is the different perceptions of in­dividuals and community interest. In China the community interest is para­mount; the individual interest is much less valued. However, the complete re­verse is the case in Europe and America where the individual interest is para­mount and the community interest is less important. So, we differ greatly in understanding freedom, community interest and individual interest. That’s why we need things like the Confucius Institutes out there to build the bridge of cultural understanding so that we can understand these differences.

Reporter: What do you think West­ern culture and Chinese culture could learn from each other?

Alistair Michie: The West could learn a lot from the Chinese culture and civilization. China spent 5,000 years working out how to govern about one fifth of the world’s population. Yet, most western people have never studied China with a serious and meticulous approach. There is a huge amount that could be learnt about how China is governed, for example, China’s Five Year Plan. As you know, the Five Year Plan is very important for the nation. Some Western countries just would not ana­lyze and think about the benefits of such a strategic plan made by the Chinese government. However, an open mind will see that with the Five Year Plan Chi­na has a rational strategy steering where it will head and Chinese enterprises can also know clearly where it should focus and invest.

Likewise, the East could learn a lot from the West. For example, the East and the West have different attitudes towards the community interest and in­dividual interest. I think China has gone too far to focus on the community inter­est while failing to pay enough attention to the individual interest. But in Europe, it is the other way around. Individuals, compared with community interest, are much more cherished. So, maybe China could learn by studying how to get a better balance between the community interest and the individual interest.

Reporter: As an outstanding rep­resentative who is working actively in different cultures, how do you jump the cross-culture barrier? And do you have any advice for those who face those cul­tural differences?

Alistair Michie: Even after more than a decade of wandering around and working in China, I am still a student of Chinese culture and civili­zation. China is just like a never-end­ing detective story and I have never ceased to want to find the patterns from clues that can explain China. I feel very strongly that both foreign and Chinese people must pay much more attention to understand cross-cultural differences.

One of the things that I am push­ing at the moment is the Theory of International Reputation Manage­ment. Chinese people can easily understand it from the concept of Sun Tzu’s military principles, which every Chinese would know. It means getting inside the mind of your op­ponent and understanding how he or she thinks. And then without conflict, bring in that person to your point of view. This is a very ancient piece of Chinese thinking as you all know. I deliberately didn’t use the term “en­emy”; I used the word “opponent”. I avoided using words like “war” or “enemy” because Sun Tzu’s military principles need not have been trans­lated that way. If you use a soft word, you can use the same basic principles of Sun Tzu to teach Chinese people how to communicate more effectively in the international community. This is of great importance for China.

Of course, people in the West also have many prejudices against China. For example, many people in the West believe that China’s political system should be the same as what is practiced in the USA or UK. I think Western people need to have a more open mind, understand what these differences are and learn to work in a more harmonious way with Chinese people.


Published in Confucius Institute Magazinepdf
Magazine 22. Volume 5. September 2012.

View/Download the print issue in PDF


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