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East is meeting West, so let's make an impression

Here in Northern Ireland, we've got a golden opportunity opening up for us quite literally today.

The Confucius Institute at the University of Ulster (CIUU) has been set up in collaboration with Zhejiang University of Media and Communications in China and is sponsored by the Chinese ministry of education through its council for Chinese language, Hanban.

Today, one of China's most senior politicians, state councillor Liu Yandong, is in Jordanstown to launch the institute.

CIUU is not just a resource for the University of Ulster, or even for education. It is a resource that business and government can buy into if they want to learn how to engage with China, how to do business there and even how to set about attracting foreign direct investment.

CIUU is part of a network of 370 Confucius Institutes worldwide, of which about 20 are in the UK, with another two in the Republic. That is a network of expertise that we can - and should - use to our benefit.

So what is it we need to learn? Sometimes, it's the simple things that you just wouldn't think of.

When you organise a meeting with a Chinese partner, for example, make sure the tables in the meeting-room are arranged so that people can't see each other's feet. Put the tables together, or put tablecloths down to the ground, but don't let the feet be seen.

Or when you're handing over your business card, do it with both hands. Little things, you might think, but they make a positive impression when you get them right, because you're showing that you're taking their culture seriously.

But there are bigger challenges, too. One fundamental difference between Chinese and Western ways of doing business is this: here, we like to try to do the deal quickly, and if things go well, we might build up a relationship afterwards.

In China, it's the other way around. People take time building relationships and only when they trust do they conclude the deal.

That means investing time and money. It means engaging with their expectations. Deep down, their culture isn't as strange as it seems, just a bit different.

Yes, their political system is fundamentally different to ours, there's no shying away from that, but the human dimension remains.

China has moved on from the old Maoist ways and wants to engage with the outside world and it wants the world to engage with it.

That brings challenges for us, because we are tiny compared to China: There are 750 citizens of China for every one person in Northern Ireland.

Our economy is overly reliant on small and medium enterprises, which may fear that they don't have the capacity to engage with markets that are so large and so far away. But that's where strategy and government come in.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has a role to play in developing business potential, as does Invest NI.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should have a role in developing the export potential of the agri-food sector. Even tourism has potential, between golf, the Giant's Causeway, Titanic and cruising on the Fermanagh lakes.

And higher education has a role, too, developing links, research potential, collaborative courses, and staff and student exchanges.

China is so vast that it would be impossible for Northern Ireland to fully satisfy its demand for anything. That's where strategy comes in, targeting some of its provinces rather than the whole country.

There is more than enough there for all of us, if we play it right and play for Northern Ireland PLC. But the rest of the world has figured that out, too.

The launch of CIUU is the big event. After today, it's about how we work together, develop strategies and use the new Confucian resource to the benefit of us all.

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