Doing Business in China

David Kedwards David Kedwards spent most of the last 11 years running his company's mainland China business

Wall Street English is a subsidiary of the Pearson media and education group that teaches English as a foreign language in 27 countries worldwide.

When I started in 2001, we had one centre in Beijing. As of today, we've got 63 centres in nine cities across China.

In all, we've dealt with about 250,000 students since we first set up here.

The biggest single constraint on our growth has been getting the right staff. Otherwise we'd have twice the number of centres, the demand is so strong.

Our staff have to have the business skills, the language skills and also the right business etiquette.

Under communism, the education system has not yet caught up with the enormous demand for skilled managers capable of operating in highly matrixed multinational corporations.

There is a huge dearth of this kind of talent.

If you give people orders in China, they will follow them very carefully. But people don't always show enough initiative or creativity.

Thirst to understand

We offer a super-premium product and are more expensive than our competitors.

In the big cities in China, there are luxury shopping malls the like of which you wouldn't believe.

People queue outside a Louis Vuitton store in a Shanghai shopping mall Like the country's many luxury shopping malls, the Wall Street Institute caters for China's new elite

Like those malls, we are targeting the top layer of society, which is actually quite narrow, but which has a lot of money to spend.

Typically our students are 25-to-40-year-olds, largely white-collar folk, looking for English to help with their career. English being the global language of business, it will open more doors for them.

We don't see Mandarin replacing English as a business language in East Asia. Of the three main international financial centres in the region - Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo - two of them are English speaking and are based on British business rules and principles.

Many senior people in the Communist Party and in the regional governments are also learning English. These people are the creme de la creme.

There is a relentless desire for education in this country. There is a great tradition of learning. Teaching is a glorified profession - in contrast with the West.

The thirst to understand what is going on in the rest of the world is enormous. Maybe this is something to do with the restrictions on communication and the media in China.

Analysis

English has been a compulsory subject for primary school children in China since 2001, the year China joined the World Trade Organisation.

The government took the view that a command of the English language was a prerequisite for China to compete in the global economy.

Mandarin shows little sign of ousting English as the pre-eminent international language, even within South East Asia.

For example, in Singapore in the last 20 years English has seemingly replaced Mandarin as the main language spoken at home among the Chinese community.

China's universities typically include an English language test as part of their entry criteria.

However, the authorities have been fighting a steeply uphill battle, especially in rural China.

There is a serious shortage of capable teaching staff, and the English language itself remains of little relevance to the day-to-day lives of most ordinary Chinese.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Chinese were taught set phrases in the classroom, but still cannot string an English sentence together.

Technology, in the form of modern teaching aides and access to the internet, may now be changing things, as may the continued integration of China into the global economy.

But for the time being, the English language remains a valuable commodity only for middle-class urbanites - albeit a group that still comprises many tens of millions.

People are open to foreigners and foreign influences.

All of our teachers are native English speakers - from Australia, the US, Britain, South Africa - and increasingly we are recruiting directly from overseas.

For a Chinese student, it is a big deal to get access to a foreign teacher.

Level zero

In the Chinese education system, people are taught by rote. They memorise a lot of language, but cannot actually use it.

Generally speaking, our students will have been exposed to some English at school, but it is often only after they finish school that they switch on and realise that they need English in the real world.

Our approach is not prescriptive. We're not here to teach people how to pass a language exam to get into a university or for foreign immigration.

We use a "blended learning" approach. It means that we have to explain to students that they will be doing a lot of the learning on their own.

About 60% of the curriculum involves students interacting with our proprietary software, 30% is with teachers, and the rest is homework and other assignments.

Eleven years ago there was a huge problem of getting people to interact with a computer instead of a teacher. There was culturally a lot of resistance.

As the world has become more digital, we have seen a sea-change in attitudes, and the kids coming through now are much more comfortable dealing with the internet, using their iPads and so on.

Our software is now available online, and we are also looking to provide online classes.

In China and a couple of other Asian countries - Korea, Japan - the issue of "face" is critical.

Wall Street Institute teacher and students In China, teaching is a valued profession

We had to work hard to make people more expressive, and more confident to expose themselves and make themselves vulnerable.

To improve confidence, we set up a social club to supplement our teaching activities, to allow for free conversation in an informal setting.

For many Chinese the very basics of the English language, such as the characters we write with, are new.

So we invented a new product in China called "Introduction to English". In other countries we have teaching levels one to 17. In China we had to invent a level zero.

Brown envelopes

Another issue in China is the bureaucracy.

There are agencies and departments for everything. There are many different licences you have to get, and each licence is limited in scope.

Negotiating licences and dealing with vendors is not necessarily straightforward.

Sometimes people make suggestions like: "My kids are coming up for college soon and it's very expensive."

We've avoided games with brown envelopes - we knew that we eventually wanted to sell the business to a multinational corporation that would have strict compliance criteria.

Fortunately, because of our high profile as a premium brand, the bureaucracy was willing to work with us and we could still get things done.

The government here is very smart, and if they see that you are the best in class, they will be delighted to see you set up shop in China because they know that it will help the diffusion of knowledge into the country.

We raised our profile by making donations to government programmes such as the Shanghai Expo, and the "Go West" programme to develop the interior of the country.

We also hired a couple of key people who used to work in the department of education.

They helped reinforce the quality of our product and increased our credibility.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • OrchestraSound of success

    How one of Turkey’s finest orchestras found global fame

Programmes

  • Ebola patients in Sierra LeoneHARDtalk Watch

    Dr Geraldine O'Hara recalls the horrors of working on the Ebola frontline in Sierra Leone

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.