Xiplomacy: The icebreakers and their living legacy that bonds China with Britain

(Xinhua) 10:52, July 20, 2023

BEIJING, July 19 (Xinhua) -- Seventy years ago, a delegation of British industrial and business leaders embarked on an adventure to Beijing, driven by a desire to initiate trade ties with China and a keen recognition of its market potential.

Led by entrepreneur Jack Perry, then chairman of the London Export Corporation, the British businessmen broke through the ideological barriers and blazed a trail of bilateral trade exchanges.

Over the decades, their bold move, known as the "Icebreaking Mission," has inspired generations of entrepreneurs committed to fostering connections and understanding between the Chinese and British peoples. Trade relations between the two countries have been elevated, and fruitful cooperation has flourished across a wide spectrum of fields.


In 1953, at the invitation of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, Perry and a group of other industrial and business leaders defied the blockade imposed by the West on the newly founded PRC and began a groundbreaking journey.

They received a warm welcome when they set foot on the bustling streets of Beijing, where they inked a trade agreement worth 30 million pounds (39.2 million U.S. dollars) with the Chinese government, the first trade deal between a Western business community and the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Describing the audacious journey as "a historic breakthrough," Perry recounted his excitement in his memoirs. Driven by his vision of closer Chinese-British ties, he went on to found the first British-Chinese trade group in Britain, later known as the 48 Group Club, building a bridge for bilateral trade between the two nations.

In his congratulatory letter commemorating the 70th anniversary of the "Icebreaking Mission" on July 6, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that the British entrepreneurs, represented by Jack Perry, keenly seeing the bright future of New China and the huge potential of China-Britain cooperation, broke the ice of ideology with courage, and took the lead in opening up the channel of China-Britain trade exchanges.

Despite the passage of time, substantial untapped potential exists in bilateral cooperation.

Given the multiple intertwined challenges confronting the world today, including headwinds against globalization, the imperative to break through the ice of protectionism and confrontation has become even more significant and indispensable.

"The more time goes by, the more one can see how far-sighted the original icebreakers were," said Keith Bennett, vice chair of the 48 Group Club. "The icebreaking spirit is needed just as it was 70 years ago."

Now the ice has melted and becomes a "river" of cooperation, he said, noting that China-Britain cooperation has developed into a considerable scale triggered by the icebreaking spirit of those pioneers and it is time to build on that foundation and try to emulate what they have achieved.


At the age of 24, Stephen Perry, son of Jack Perry, commenced a journey that would shape his initial perception of China.

On his inaugural trip to China accompanying his father, Stephen was captivated by the sprawling rice fields and the busy laborers toiling in the fields.

The scenes left an indelible impression on his young mind, leaving in him a deep impression of the country and its people.

The Perry family's commitment to upholding the spirit of "icebreaking" and promoting China-Britain cooperation has been passed down through generations.

In 1993, Stephen assumed his father's role as the chairman of the 48 Group Club. Since then, the organization has developed and expanded, boasting over 600 members spanning across various fields such as business, culture, diplomacy, and academia.

Drawing inspiration from his family's confidence in China's development, Stephen said that contemporary British entrepreneurs shared the same belief in China's rosy prospects and the enormous opportunities the country harbors.

In a survey conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce in China, 86 percent of British companies are optimistic about the long-term potential of the Chinese market.

Recently, the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) dispatched another business delegation to China to boost trade ties.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the CBBC chair, described the trip as "absolutely wonderful," likening it to "falling in love all over again and renewing an acquaintance with an old friend."

Andrew Seaton, chief executive of the CBBC, emphasized the prevailing consensus within the British business community regarding the need to strengthen economic and trade cooperation between China and Britain.

British companies have expressed "a very strong sense of commitment to the Chinese market, commitment to their presence in China, their investment in China, their engagement and so on," said Seaton, adding that the immense potential for cooperation in education, healthcare, financial services and green energy is widely acknowledged.

Like the generations before them, the modern-day "icebreakers" have witnessed and contributed to China's remarkable journey of opening-up and progress. They have expanded their businesses through mutually beneficial cooperation with their Chinese counterparts.

In 2008, the 48 Group Club established the "Young Icebreakers," an organization made up of young British and Chinese entrepreneurs, with the aim of empowering the next generation to chart their own path and embrace the spirit of "icebreaking." Stephen's children were also part of the initiative.

"Let the next generation take over and find their feet. My father gave me that opportunity about 45 years ago," said Stephen, reflecting on the intergenerational legacy.

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Liang Jun)


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