As a second edition of the interviews with Belgian diplomats in China, in this article we introduce Mr. Bruno Jans – Consul General in Shanghai – and Mr. Luc Truyens – Consul General in Guangzhou.
1. The past year must have been quite an experience for you. You had to start your assignment in Beijing in the midst of Covid-19. How did you and your family cope with this unusual situation?
Bruno Jans: Due to the pandemic and all Chinese requirements to enter the territory, my arrival in Shanghai had to be postponed for a month. As I came alone, being totally on my own for the two week quarantine period was unprecedented in my life and somehow an interesting introspection experience. I found it difficult first and foremost to be deprived of the possibility to have my relatives and close friends visit me. And I am afraid that this situation may persist for quite a long time.
Luc Truyens: I arrived in Guangzhou and also immediately started a quarantine period. I used the time to read reports about the working of the Consulate and books about China.
2. For Bruno Jans: You have a long track record in the private sector and as a diplomate or foreign affairs representative in many countries, including Israel, USA, Egypt, Russia, Norway, Germany and so on. If you compare living in those countries with living and working in China, how different is that?
Bruno Jans: I enjoyed living in every country and, when asked to rank them by order of preference, I am simply unable to do so because each of them was fascinating and enriching for different reasons. And I already feel it is not going to be different with China. Shanghai is an international megalopolis, which is so welcoming and so easy to adapt to that I immediately felt home here. And the few other regions which I already visited are giving me a sense of the large and beautiful diversity of the country. Like anywhere else, differences you may encounter in China can be looked at from a positive and enriching angle. Chinese people are curious and they are so easy to interact with. Of course, Europe and China have political divergences and do not share all the same values – and it is our role to promote and defend what we believe is right – but it is also our duty to find common grounds, build bridges and maintain the dialogue open.
3. For Luc Truyens: You have a long track record in the private sector and since 2000 as a diplomate or foreign affairs representative in many countries, including Austria, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkmenistan. If you compare living in those countries with living and working in China, how different is that?
Luc Truyens: China is a country with mega cities and certainly an enormous amount of tall buildings. I have never lived in such an environment
4. For Bruno Jans: The relationship between Belgium and China has always been quite strong, with many Belgian investments in China or Chinese investments in Belgium and many successful activities in trade, cultural exchange and other forms of Sino-Belgian relations. How do you see this from your perspective?
Bruno Jans: Absolutely. Not only has Belgium indeed been a key international player for the economic development of China in the past decades, it is also maintaining a positive image of an entrepreneurial country. I find that the great public tends to still perceive Belgium only through the usual clichés of “beer and chocolates” – which is after all not so bad as it projects an image of conviviality – but there is no doubt that business and economic circles see it as a land of opportunity and excellence in various innovating sectors, a key logistical hub on the continent and the esteemed and somehow admired host country of the European Union and other major organizations.
5. For Bruno Jans: Shanghai is the economic capital of China, but also a very competitive and expensive environment to do business. As you know, Belgium is mainly a country of SMEs, and often they only have one chance to do it right. Do you think it’s a good choice for Belgian companies to enter China through Shanghai, or would they better start in a smaller Chinese city or even through E-commerce?
Bruno Jans: The regional agencies can certainly answer this question better but my impression is that, despite indeed its high cost of doing business Shanghai, remains an unavoidable base to operate in China. As the entry gate to the economic heart of China and the Yangtse River Delta, the metropole offers a diversified and complementary ecosystem for commercial, economic, financial, logistical and innovation activities. Also, high business costs are spilling over the neighbouring cities of Shanghai but, for a majority of Belgian operators, these places remain attractive given the size of the local market and the integrated supply chains. On the other hand, a few well established Belgian manufacturing SMEs are indeed not totally excluding alternative locations in the West of China or in other South-Asian countries. In the end, whatever the costs or the business environment, the ability to make profits or not influences such decisions. And many companies still make profits in China.
6. For Luc Truyens: The Guangdong province is one of the first provinces to open up to the West and has been one of the most developed regions in China ever since. On the other hand, it is also a very competitive and expensive environment to do business. As you know, Belgium is mainly a country of SMEs, and often they only have one chance to do it right. Do you think it’s a good choice for Belgian companies to enter China through Guangzhou or Shenzhen, or would they better start in a smaller Chinese city or even through E-commerce?
Luc Truyens: Guangzhou and Shenzhen are certainly interesting gates to enter the Chinese market. Many organisations, traders and fairs can offer opportunities and assistance to enter a market that can be quite foreign in terms of characteristics. Here is certainly not one unique golden path to enter China.
7. Finally, could you share with us some personal story about your China presence in the past year? Any private encounters or experiences which are typical for China or which made you love (or hate) the country?
Bruno Jans: I never realized how much Chinese people are dedicated ‘foodies’. They constantly talk about food, are very precise in the description of recipes, and they even travel avidly throughout the country just to experience local food here and there. I actually find Chinese even more into gastronomy than Belgians but it is definitely an interest which we share. And we usually appreciate a lot people who are passionate about food, don’t we?
Luc Truyens: China gave me already many positive experiences. I give you just one. When I am walking in Guangzhou, a city of high level consumption and fashion, I found it nice to see how Chinese toddlers are already fitting in, what makes them really cute!