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Building bridges

Updated: 2013-02-01 11:33
By He Wei and Ma Zhenhuan ( China Daily)

 Building bridges

Martyn Davies offers strategy and investment advice on the African market. Cao Zichen / for China Daily

Building bridges

A life in business, politics and academia in South Africa and China has put Martyn Davies in an ideal position to advise enterprises

China has captivated the imagination of Martyn Davies for as long as he can remember. Maybe it started with the documentaries he saw as a child about the Great Wall, or his desire to understand kung fu movies, or maybe, as he put it, it was "a calling".

Whatever the cause, two decades ago as a high school graduate from Johannesburg, Davies set off for the south of China to "follow the steps of reformist Deng Xiaoping to get a sense of opening up to the rest of the world".

Thereafter, Davies continued on a path gathering as much information and knowledge as possible to understand China's foreign policies. It took him from his undergraduate studies and a doctorate to his main role today as the head of consultancy firm Frontier Advisory, which specializes in helping businesses improve their competitiveness in emerging markets. The job involves commuting between Johannesburg and Shanghai on a monthly basis.

"In the past 16 years I've been able to balance the academia, politics and businesses," says Davies, 41, sitting in his office suite in downtown Shanghai. "That's exactly the number of years since South Africa and China established diplomatic relations."

Before Beijing and Pretoria broke the diplomatic ice, Davies studied in Taipei and Seoul, where he embarked on the geopolitics and economics of East Asia. He made a lot of useful contacts during this time to become a widely recognized "China hand".

His first official engagement with China's Foreign Ministry was in 1999, when an officer from the Chinese embassy in Pretoria invited him to dinner.

"He recommended me to his senior colleague for being locally resourceful," he recalls. "I was told that China would have a very senior level politician visiting South Africa, and I was invited to assist arranging a banquet involving people from the local political and business circles."

The star guest was then vice-president, now President Hu Jintao. With only 18 days to the function, Davies managed to organize 180 people to fill a ballroom. He also found the appropriate sponsor for the event, which turned out to be a great success.

The following four years saw five state-level visits by the Chinese leadership to South Africa, an unprecedented frequency and a mark of improving ties between the two countries.

"I was lucky at such a young age to have that kind of exposure to Chinese foreign policy and Africa," Davies says.

Another milestone he achieved was helping establish China's first Confucius Institute under the Stellenbosch University of South Africa in 2004. Davies believed he was in the best position to counter claims that the school was a tool for cultural invasion.

For its part, Davies believes, China always appointed its best officials as African ambassadors. Then ambassador to South Africa Liu Guijin provided innovative ideas on the layout of the school, he says.

Liu and Davies agreed that the school wasn't just about culture and language. Rather, it should include components regarding international relations as well.

"Normally in Confucius Institutes, language studies are incorporated at universities into existing courses that are attended by about 30 to 40 full-time students," Davies says. "But unlike places such as London, New York or Singapore, where the importance of learning Chinese is prevalent, Africa is cut off to the world and such a sense is largely lacking."

So the pair decided rather than concentrating on Chinese language and culture, the courses would instead provide comprehensive information on China and its engagement with the rest of the world.

Davies says there have never been any instructions or directions regarding the curriculum. The government was completely hands off.

"These are equivalent to certain educational projects that are run by the British Council," he adds. "If you are trying to build institutions in the financially and politically weak Africa, it was very difficult to do things without state funding."

Davies regards such terms as "cultural invasion" and "neo-colonialism" as highly inaccurate. Coined by Western commentators, they unfortunately reflect a narrative dominated by traditional European interests, he says.

But Chinese views on Africa have shifted from the zero-sum geopolitical dimension to a developmental and commercial one, he adds.

Six years ago when he was lecturing an MBA class in Belgium, he asked the students whether they perceived Africa as more of a development burden or a business opportunity. Ninety percent chose the former.

"Then I popped the same question two weeks later in a similar class at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Everyone agreed it was an opportunity," he says. "So the phrase (neo-colonialism) is misguided. It was built on a flawed theoretical framework and a politicized context that is obsolete."

"Now, China is simply the biggest customer and the resource provider," Davies says. "Of course there are politics involved, but the political-economy interplay must be viewed in an objective sense, not an obsolete one."

His early work not only paved Davies' way into academia and fostered close relations with the Chinese government, they also created business opportunities for him.

The accelerated capital flows of the emerging market have encouraged many Chinese companies to enter a largely untapped Africa, and Davies foresees a surge in demand for business consultants in the continent.

Since he founded Frontier Advisory in 2007, he and his colleagues have worked with clients in the private and public sectors to deepen their understanding and ability in the emerging African market, offering strategy and investment advice.

Davies says Chinese investment has diversified from a focus on energy to infrastructure and the construction sector. Because many African states are not politically stable, private enterprises face bigger challenges when they try to gain a foothold.

"Chinese investment arrived just 13 or 14 years ago, and it is still at a rather early stage. Companies still need to sharpen their skills in terms of getting into the very foreign cultures."

Chinese companies, for example, want to meet the government each time they arrive in a country. "But the truth is, in Africa, the best thing to do (in a commercial context) is perhaps to stay away from governments."

Davies has chaired public and private sessions at the World Economic Forum, and serves as a member of its Global Agenda Council on China.

Because of his dedication to bridging China and Africa, he was selected in 2010 as a Young Global Leader by the forum.

"It's been an incredible personal learning experience for me," Davies said. "Linking different cultures is about promoting common value sets, seeing the world in global terms and influencing it towards the positive."

Contact the writers at hewei@chinadaily.com.cn and mazhenhuan@chinadaily.com.cn

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