There was a thaw in British thinking when, in 1952, Lord Boyd-Orr, the first Director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, stated publicly that:
In 1953 Lord Boyd-Orr, who went on to form the British Council for the Promotion of International Trade (BCPIT), took 16 representatives of British companies, including Jack Perry, to China to discuss trade. The 1953 ‘Icebreaker Mission’ paved the way for the now fabled 1954 trade mission with 48 businessmen from British companies, which later became known generically as The 48 Group – The ‘Icebreakers’ and whose trail-blazing initiatives have become a long time part of British-Chinese history.
Over the ensuing years, this commercial group, funded by its members, grew to be the most respected name in China-Britain trade, a name well known throughout China. The Group provided support and consultancy services to British companies entering China’s markets.
Today, 60 years after the ‘Icebreakers’ mission the 48 Group Club continues to develop the work of promoting positive Sino-British relations and Club members believe they have a vital role in unfreezing the cultural deficit between China and the world. President Hu Jintao neatly summarizes the challenge: “China has a massive trade surplus, but a vast cultural deficit with the world.”
In the late 1980’s the 48 Group – The ‘Icebreakers’ merged with the Sino-British Trade Council to form the China-Britain Trade Group, now known as the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC). Today’s 48 Group Club – ‘The Icebreakers’ – which has grown to over 500 members continues to develop the work of promoting positive Sino-British relations.
He added: “It is important that the business communities of our two countries carry on the pioneering spirit of those who broke ice, vigorously explore new avenues and new areas for expanded economic cooperation, and work to elevate our business ties to a higher level. The Sino-British relationship has now entered a new phase of sustained development, and achieved gratifying results, particularly in economic cooperation and trade.”
Then in September 2006 China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao speaking at press conference with then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in Downing Street, London said: “Over the past half century there have been twists and turns, ups and downs in our bilateral relations. However, experience has proved that cooperation between China and the UK are beneficial to our two countries and our two peoples. In 1954 this group (the 48 Group) embarked on the road towards China, overcame all kinds of obstacles and broke through the embargoes by the western world to China to develop trade relations with my country. This was the first group of businessmen from the western world to trade with the People’s Republic of China.”
The concept was developed from an exchange of ideas between Premier Wen Jiabao and club chairman, Stephen Perry. Premier Wen said: “The rewards from such exchanges will be inestimable for both our countries.”
During his visit to London in January 2009, to attend the annual UK-China Summit, Premier Wen met members of the ‘Young Icebreakers’ to hear their views and encourage their enthusiasm for forging ongoing and further bonds of friendship between the two nations.
Indeed, the 48 Group Club is still regarded an important means of maintaining a network of those in Britain active in China trade, academic and cultural exchanges, and maintaining a well-regarded relationship with Chinese friends. The Club’s name continues to be held in high esteem by the Chinese government and significantly by the younger generation of Chinese entrepreneurs and those involved in the increasing cross-cultural activities.
The Club now has over 600 British and Chinese members, including senior executives from corporate organisations involved in trade and other dealings with China, as well as high-level politicians, diplomats, academics and others focusing on cultural relations. The Club offers an important – and often key – network of contacts (guanxi) for those active in building relations through any field from commerce to culture. Club members believe they have a vital role in helping to reduce the cultural deficit between China and the rest of the world.
- Former Premier of China speaking in London in November 1993
I have very good memories of my meetings with the ’48’ Group who did a lot for trade with China. They were the ‘Icebreakers’, and we shall never forget those who broke the ice in the difficult years.
The Club now has over 600 British and Chinese members, both corporate and individual.
Member companies and institutions vary in size from the multinational to the micro and come from all sectors: industry, commerce, government, education, sports, culture and the law, and others are high-level politicians, diplomats, academics and individuals and groups focusing on cultural relations.
The Club offers an extensive programme of events that are an important – and often key – means of establishing and maintaining contacts (guanxi) for those active in building friendly relations with China in any field from commerce to culture.
A Place In History
图中为中国总理温家宝2004年访英期间，其他人包括 48家集团俱乐部创始人之一、后任其副总裁的珀西·廷 伯雷（已故）。现任48家集团俱乐部主席斯蒂芬·佩里 在图中温总理的右边，珀西·廷伯雷旁边的是现在上海 的48家集团俱乐部前任副主席商颖露。
When Gordon Sloan returned from his visit to China with Roland Berger in the first half of 1958 he reported to a General Meeting of the Group that: ‘Of one thing there was no doubt – the extraordinary prestige which the ‘48’ Group had acquired as a result of the visit last year of the Chinese Economic and Technical Mission.\\\’
During his visit he had found that everywhere he went the reputation of the Group stood very high. The spread of the mystique of the ‘48’ Group – (Ying Guo Si Shi Ba Jia Ji Tuan) – can be dated from around this time.
The Spirit of the Times
He was setting out China’s ‘Five Principles’ of cooperation with the outside world to a visiting Indian delegation. By taking up such a principle from its earliest days (today we’d call it a mission statement), The 48 Group demonstrated how closely it would follow and seek to understand China’s developments. In this way it would try to match China’s development needs by introducing relevant British companies and their products to the market. This was often in the face of adversity and always with limited resources. As a result, Britain and The 48 Group earned a special place in the annals of international trade history – the first western country to open trade with the new China, on a platform of mutual respect.
The strength and success of the Group and its forerunners were not financial, but lay in the work of a few visionaries such as Jack Perry, Tod Sloan, Roland Berger, Percy Timberlake, Professor Joan Robinson and the British companies which formed its membership – a mutually supportive network. Equally important was the very close relationship with Chinese counterparts, for example the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade whose Chairman, Bo Yibo became a firm friend.
As a privately constituted body which had led the campaign against the British government’s embargo of trade in those earliest days of the new China, the Group had no recourse to public funds, nor did this trouble them. By working directly with and for British industry they could keep their agenda sharp, pertinent and flexible to changing needs. To keep up with China’s modernisation agenda it was always important to ensure Group events were relevant to the membership. By focusing on China’s requirements and introducing specific technologies / products in a timely and effective way, British companies were ensured an excellent chance of winning business and Chinese customers were satisfied – often returning for repeat orders because trust and quality had been established. The small number of importers in the Group were just as active as the exporters and gave China a chance to earn hard currency with which to buy further British goods – a virtuous circle was created and for many years Britain led the trade with China among western countries.
This was long before China became the very popular business destination and major economic power that it is today. It took determination and hard work, but bilateral trade increased dramatically over the years so that Britain was China’s premier western trade partner up until the late 1970s. Companies joined, left and re-joined the Group, but membership always grew steadily as business took off. By the 1980’s when China’s opening-up reform programme started, Germany, the US and others began to go to China in greater numbers. New challenges faced British industry.
Without official government backing, the hostility directed at those who wanted to open trade with the new China cannot be underestimated and many personal sacrifices were made. The hard-won breakthroughs were worth it in the end; the pioneers foresaw China’s huge potential, they envisioned a world where China could take its rightful place among a community of peaceful trading nations, and predicted the benefits that would accrue to both Britain and China.
A snapshot of trade promotion highlights:
Among the singular achievements of the Icebreakers and The 48 Group were:
- 1953 : The £30,000,000 Business Arrangement – an unprecedented two-way trade deal signed in Beijing and followed up a year later
- 1954 – The 48 Group of British Traders with China was established after a meeting of 48 people in Berlin to implement the historic business arrangement
- Mid-1964 : British Mining and Construction Equipment Exhibition –
Largest display of western equipment ever to be held in P R China until then.
Stand sales alone reached £300,000
- Late 1964: First ever single-industry delegations to China – Mining Equipment and Port Installations, meeting China’s priorities at the time
- 1970 : First Trade Mission to China after Cultural Revolution
Chinese promise honoured – 48 Group first organisation to be invited back
- 1972: Automotive and Machine Tool Delegations
Early technical group, 80 lecture-hours. Considered best ever mission by Chinese. Foreign Trade Vice Minister Li Jiang spent a morning with delegates
- 1974: Group’s 20th Anniversary in China – Ground-breaking Talks
Business talks – Manufacturers explain how to deal with price escalation
UK Ambassador Edward Youde takes interest in Group’s contribution to trade
- 1976: End of an era; Start of new business promotion models
Mao and Zhou Enlai die, new leadership looks to future. Group instigates new concept of frugal, but targeted, exhibitions with parallel technical symposia. Highly successful: £1.6 million contracts concluded (£600,000 on stands)
- Late 70’s: High point : Technical Exchange Programme
Most significant contribution in this period. Twice-yearly bilateral exchange covering aerospace/aeronautics, metallurgy, agriculture and communications
- 1978: 25th Anniversary: Turning Point, New Forms of Trade explored
48 Group recognised as ‘most potent force’ in bilateral trade. ‘Working Party’ on technology transfer, buy-back, production know-how, presages China’s new economic plans to attract foreign technology and investment.
- 1979: Seminars in UK to brief companies on new forms of trade
3 seminars in 1979, eg ‘New Realism in Trade with China’. Twenty proposals suggested from Working Party resulted in business negotiations in China
- 1980’s: 48 Group’s unique influence used to assist British companies
Contract with Chinese corporation threatened due to lack of forex. Group puts case on behalf of UK company to Ministry, Chinese Embassy and
Import/Export Commission – argument upheld, UK wins the business
- 48 Group Co-operation Agreements Between 1982 and 1989 agreements
were signed with Liaoning, Jiangsu, Guangdong provinces and Dandong,
Chongqing, Chengdu cities to share business information and provide local
support to UK visiting companies
- 1984: 30th Anniversary: China’s regions feature further in missions
Coal Utilisation Mission visits coalfields in Shanxi/Hebei; Mixed Mission
visits Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangsu and Shanghai. Received by Premier Li Peng and relevant industry Ministers
- Group receives delegations to UK: Quality Control Study Mission from
State Economic commission and Marketing Methods Study Mission from
Heilongjiang – meetings exclusively for members
- Seminar series; ‘Knowing China in the 80’s’; ‘New opportunities, New
Problems’; ‘Interpreting Chinese Negotiating Techniques’
- 1985: First British Trade Office in China – Beijing
A ground-breaking initiative – a liaison office set up, funded and used by subscribing companies to develop business. Sir Richard Evans, UK Ambassador and old friend Bo Yibo, State Councillor, attend opening
- 1986: Queen Visits China: Group invited to Shanghai Trade Days
Twenty 48 Group members participate in trade talks which coincide with arrival of Royal Yacht. Soft Loan facility negotiated around this time, five members involved
- 1987-8: Surge of delegations to UK
48 Group received 20 ministerial, state commission and provincial level
delegations as well as those from CITIC and CCPIT for benefit of members
- 1988: Opening of Shanghai Office
Major dinner to celebrate Icebreakers anniversary held in London. The second liaison office opened; funded and used by subscribing members
- 1989: 35th Anniversary: Largest yet British Trade Mission to China
In October, five contingents, nearly 100 delegates, stretch north to south, east to west to look at opportunities in China’s 8th Five Year Plan. Tragic events in Beijing in June meant no high-level contact was appropriate, but business contacts and the FCO posts welcomed the Group warmly. As in 1950’s, it was a time of adversity, but people-to-people contact was a hallmark of the Group
- 1990’s: Follow-up Mission ‘Visit China with the Experts’; New Era begins
Activity generated by 1989’s mission continued for months afterwards and two missions visited various provinces again in the autumn of 1990 to continue business.
Written with a debt of gratitude to Percy Timberlake from whose history of The 48 Group the substance of this article is taken. To enquire about the book ‘The 48 Group – A History of the Icebreakers in China’ please contact us.