Scotland/China articles

Interview - an intercultural communicator

by Web Editor, 29 October 2012

This is the third in an occasional series of interviews focussing on individuals from Scotland and China who have spent a lengthy period in the other country.

James Brodie, originally from Edinburgh, has recently returned from six years in China and is now Scotland/China Business Adviser with the China-Britain Business Council, based in the capital. The CBBC is the leading organisation helping UK companies grow and develop their business in China, aiming to help UK companies of all sizes and sectors, whether new entrants or established operations, access the full potential of the Chinese market. We spoke to him about his wide experience in a variety of sectors in China and his new role in Scotland.

If things had turned out differently, James might have ended up as an expert on Thailand. It was an early “gap year” trip to that colourful country that got him interested in Asian languages and culture, before going to the University of Sheffield. “If there'd been a degree in Thai I'd probably have done that !”, he jokes. But there wasn't, so he took Chinese Studies, including a year studying in Nanjing, before spending time in Paris learning French and taking a course in intercultural communication.

He eventually landed in Beijing in 2006, and soon found a role with a local gallery specialising in Chinese contemporary art, Chinablue. “I got involved in developing their international programme”, he explains, “during what was a very exciting time for this sector – it was great to work with artists like Wang Qingsong and Liu Xiaodong”.

However, the financial crisis of 2008 caused this market to collapse temporarily, and James moved on to a variety of freelance interpreting and translating work. It was a job of this kind that had earlier taken him to the far western reaches of China, helping a French TV documentary crew filming at the source of the Yangtze River - “great fun, riding around on motorbikes near Golmud !” But it was not all exotic travel – James also had to pore over Chinese education policy documents to translate them for the British Council.

This language work took James into his final Chinese role with Davy Process Technology, a British company that develops and licences advanced process technologies for the oil and gas, petrochemicals, commodity chemicals and fine chemical industries. They had been working in China for some 30 years with significant success, but needed to open a permanent office in Beijing.

“I helped to get that started, and travelled to many of the 50 plants across China where Davy processes have been used”, James explains, “doing translating and interpreting work – this took me to Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Sichuan”. He notes that this experience, often working with Chinese state-owned enterprises such as Sinopec and PetroChina, was quite different to his previous roles with much smaller enterprises. “It was good to see a wide range of different kinds of China business”, he stresses.

This knowledge across many sectors now stands James in good stead as he begins to meet the 50 CBBC member companies in Scotland. “The diversity of our membership is striking”, he says, “I am finding myself going from a meeting about golf tourism to one about intellectual property, and then to another about the oil and gas sector”.

He's also finding some differences in business culture between Scotland and China, particularly the length of time it can take to make arrangements for meetings and events - “something that has to be set up six weeks in advance here, could be done in a few days in China – I spend a lot of time managing the differing expectations of business people from the two countries - intercultural communication is not always simply about language”.

Since he joined the organisation in August, James has been travelling the length and breadth of Scotland to have face-to-face meetings with members - “I've seen about half, and aim to see everyone by the end of the year”. These trips have taken him as far afield as Inverness, Ayr, Paisley, Broxburn, South Queensferry, Elgin and Dundee, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The opening of an office in the Scottish capital is a first for CBBC, alongside their longstanding presence in Glasgow. “We want to give members and potential members more opportunities for face-to-face contact, and it's also good to be near the Scottish Parliament and Government, too, to keep on top of policy developments and for hosting inbound Chinese delegations”, explains James. And the CBBC presence in China, currently 11 offices, is to expand soon to 13 with the addition of Xi'an and Changsha.

“Despite the difficult economic conditions, there are still a lot of opportunities for Scottish companies in China, and indeed Chinese companies here”, James emphasises. And he's certainly likely to be a lot busier than if he had studied Thai !

For more advice on doing business in China, James can be contacted at this email.