Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC)

BCECC Newsletter: Interview with Frank van Eynde

1.You just started as Economic representative in Shanghai for Flanders Investment & Trade. As are a newcomer to China, what are your expectations concerning living and working in China?

With the travel restrictions, it is not the easiest period to start living and working in China. This became clear to me after arrival and quarantine in Xi’an, as well as during traveling from Xi’an to Shanghai, which turned out to be a whole adventure. Getting around in China is indeed quite a challenge at the moment. On the other hand, one gets used to the scanning of the personal health codes, despite occasional confusion about rules and procedures, most things are well organized in China. In short, it is a challenging time, but this makes our role as Flemish economic representative even more important. As businessmen are almost unable to visit the country at the moment, they need us as their eyes and ears. I feel privileged to be in China during such an interesting and challenging period.

2. Before coming to China, you worked for FIT in Moscow, Russia. How was it to leave Russia during these challenging times and how do you expect living and working in Russia and China will be different?

As a master in Slavonic and East-European studies, I am in fact specialized in Russia. I lived in Russia during the nineties. In 2013, I returned to Russia for Flanders Investment & Trade, first in Saint-Petersburg and then in Moscow. Unfortunately, I had to leave Russia in the beginning of 2022 for obvious reasons. Although the culture and language are completely different, I see many similarities in the business structure and the way of doing business. In that way, China is not so new for me and my experience in Russia will surely help me in my approach to the Chinese business community.

3. The relationship between Belgium and China has always been quite strong. How do you see this from your perspective and what is your view on the future relationship between our two countries?

I noticed from my former postings that business always finds its way and that contacts between businessmen do not necessarily reflect the political situation between the two countries. I think we should make a distinction between politics and culture or business. The challenge is in how far the Belgian companies will be able to adapt to the new reality. When I talk to businessmen that have been working in China for a long time, I do hear comments about the travel restrictions. If you see how many international flights there are from and to Shanghai now compared to the past, it gives a good idea of the change.

4. Shanghai is the economic capital of China, but also a very competitive and expensive environment to do business in. Apart from Shanghai, you are also responsible for China’s South-West and Eastern region. Which industries or sectors do you think are most interesting for that part of China? 

For the Shanghai area that would be car manufacturing, wholesale and retail, real estate, transportation, and construction. Apart from these more traditional sectors, a lot of innovative sectors are developing in the area, sometimes at a very fast speed. Key sectors here, defined by the city government, are low-carbon businesses, the metaverse and smart devices. Chongqing is another important city in my jurisdiction, with car manufacturing, electronics manufacturing, information technology, iron, steel, mining and infrastructure building as main industries. Chengdu, also part of the jurisdiction of FIT Shanghai, is now one of the most important economic, financial, commercial, cultural, transportation, and communication centers in China. Its main sectors are machinery, automobile, medicine, food, and information technology.

5. As you know, Belgium is mainly a country of SMEs, and often they only have one chance to do it right in China. What would be your advice to Belgian companies when they consider coming to China? Or should they still consider coming to China in the first place, taking into account the current geopolitical challenges and the economic slowdown?

Having been in several postings I can tell you that the commercial risk for SMEs starting to export to France can be as big as in China. If you are unprepared, you will be at risk in any export country. However, the very different culture of doing business means that you have to prepare yourself before taking any risky steps. Talk to other Belgians that are already present in China and get to know the tips and tricks before going in. We are lucky to be having many Belgians being successful in China that are willing to share their experience. When I left for China the first time, the Wechat group of Belgian travellers to China was a great help.

6. FIT is a strategic partner of the Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC). As the biggest Sino-Belgian business community, the BCECC tries to create a better understanding between the two countries by organising all kinds of events, such as seminars, webinars, delegations’ visits, etc. Do you have any comments or suggestions to us?

I would say, keep up the good work. First of all, you provide a forum where Chinese and Belgian entrepreneurs can meet each other and you organize lots of interesting seminars and events. The best way to understand Chinese culture is to live it. The chamber provides such an opportunity. My suggestion: also include seminars on very concrete topics: for instance, not only the rules to enter China but also testimonials of people that travelled to China. Theory and practice do differ.