As part of our series ‘China through my eyes’, we interview Belgians who stayed in China during the past years. This is an interview with Belgian Fabian Blake, Vice-President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China.
1. Could you briefly introduce yourself, and in particular how you ended up working in China?
I am a 43 years-old Belgian National from the charming locality of Resteigne at the border between the Famenne and Ardennes. I have been living and working in South China for 15 years and had the chance to travel across 16 Chinese provinces in that period of time (for both leisure and work). My first opportunity to travel to China dates back from 2008 when I was a project engineer for the prestigious holding of ETEX Group with its headquarters located on the Tervueren Avenue in Brussels. A life-changing experience that I would never forget.
2. You did the new factory project for ETEX in Guangzhou from 2010 to 2012. How do you look back at this first China experience? Would you do it differently today and what did you learn from it?
It was a very interesting experience and at the same time it is very different from the other project management experience I had within the other overseas production facilities of ETEX Group. The sense of responsibilities, the cultural gap, the professionalism, and the organization skills of Chinese companies are quite superior from what could be seen in other developing economies at that time.
3. How did you spend the severe lockdown in China in 2022 and did this have any impact on your company’s business? Were there other ways in which the pandemic influenced you, for example in your private life?
I was perhaps one of the lucky ones in China that could spend the whole year 2022 dodging lockdowns. It was nevertheless a challenge, as the end of 2022 in South China was also plagued with a series of lockdowns in major cities. I could manage to stay either at our weekend house in Huizhou, our condo in Foshan, our main residence in Guangzhou or even at hotel rooms to avoid ending up in a locked-up area. Definitely not an easy situation to handle as the nature of our business at AMS requires us to meet people and work in teams.
4. You are a French-speaking Belgian, working for a Dutch company in China. Can you share any special stories of intercultural challenges in your daily work?
It is quite often surprising to see how two neighboring (North-European) countries have striking similarities, but also some differences in certain aspects. Just like many other European SMEs going through 3 years (if not more) of isolation with the mother entity (for us Amsterdam), it has certainly created challenges at some point, but we are glad these years are behind us. AMS has skillfully navigated through these challenges and came out of this crisis stronger than ever, thanks to its demonstrated resilience.
5. As a former Member of the Board of Bencham Pearl River Delta, how do you see the opportunities for Belgian SMEs in China? Which sectors are most promising and which recommendations would you give to them?
Absolutely! The general business environment is improving over the years and there is undoubtably a higher chance of success compared to what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Of course, the business proposition of an SME needs to be sharper than ever as there are many entrepreneurs making the leap towards China. If there are sectors that are more supported than others, these are usually the ones that are related to high technologies and innovation.
6. For two years you are Vice-President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China. A lot of your members are multinational companies. How are EU multinationals doing in China and how different is it from EU SMEs?
Quite a lot can be found in our two flagship publications which are the “Position Paper” and the results of the “Business Confidence Survey”. In general, confidence has been maintained at moderate level even through the darkest times of the pandemic. We had a significant increase in number of recommendations, but yet, a large majority of companies have decided to stay and go through the storm, while quite many of them even scored great results in 2021. The year 2022 was more challenging for many to improve or maintain their profitability. SMEs, even if more flexible than multinational companies, are more vulnerable to such macro challenges.
7. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about doing business in China in 2023 and the following years and what are the main changes to be expected as compared to the past years?
Personally, I’m very optimistic as we have just come out of a long period of uncertainty. However, for many of us running a business in China, we should not expect a massive growth or changes to happen overnight. Things will require quite a few months to settle. At the moment, a lot of energy is spent in revving-up the Chinese business environment. Many companies expect Q3 and Q4 of this year to be better than the first half of 2023.
8. How do you see your future in China? Do you see yourself living in China for the long term or do you plan to come back to Belgium one day?
Yes. China never stopped to surprise me for the last 15 years and I’m quite sure it won’t change anytime soon. There are intense periods of challenges and stress, but there are also extremely rewarding moments too. If I may summarize, it is as surprising as it can be intense. China will remain for sure a real ‘fitness center’ for the ones having the ambition to face complex challenges!
Please contact the Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC) in case you need more information.