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Ahead of the Curve

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A Young Australian dedicated to promoting commercial and cultural awareness of China is head of Confucius Institute.

Ahead of the Curve

China Daily Asia

A Young Australian dedicated to promoting commercial and cultural awareness of China is head of Confucius Institute

Laurie Pearcey is not a typical 20-something Australian guy. Despite his youth, the strategist has been at the forefront of his country’s business and political relations with China for the past decade.

Surrounded by Sydney’s growing Chinese population as a child in the 1990s, it never struck Pearcey that Australia belonged anywhere else in the world apart from Asia.

“Australia’s success owes so much to the growth in Asian immigration which occurred in great numbers during the (Bob) Hawke, (Paul) Keating and (John) Howard governments,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Australia is home to the most successful experiment in multiculturalism in the world. I would not be the person I am today without Sydney’s vibrant multicultural population.”

At the age of 17 Pearcey spent a year working for the then opposition foreign affairs spokesman and former prime minister Kevin Rudd (as well as the then Labor state minister for natural resources), where he developed a political instinct that has served him well in business circles.

“Politics and Rudd weren’t for me, but that year gave me a grounding in principles of public service,” he says.

Pearcey would work late evenings at Rudd’s office, taking great interest in the vast collection of books available on modern China.

Rather than pursue the rite-of-passage backpacking trip across Europe enjoyed by many young Australians, in 2002 Pearcey headed for Shandong province’s Zibo city with his brother, a Mandarin handbook and a passion for all things Chinese. His timing meant that he was perfectly placed to be just ahead of the China curve.

“China had just entered the WTO (World Trade Organization) and Beijing had been finally successful in its Olympics bid,” he says.

“Zibo was a microcosm of what was happening across the Chinese economy. It was a growing city that earned its stripes on the back of traditional smokestack industries and was moving to transform its growth base.”

Within months, Pearcey — a natural linguist regularly cited for his excellent Mandarin — landed a consulting job with a subsidiary of the oil and gas giant Sinopec, climbing onboard a burgeoning State-owned enterprise at a time of extraordinary change. Then, yet to turn 20, Pearcey found himself playing a role in the dawn of Sinopec’s global ambitions.

In love with Mandarin and determined to pursue an academic career, Pearcey returned to Australia, winning prizes and scholarships. He ultimately graduated top of his class on the prestigious International Studies program at the University of New South Wales.

It was here that Pearcey was cherry-picked by Australia’s premier China-focused business organization.

“My academic aspirations were rudely interrupted by a call to serve as CEO of the Australia China Business Council (ACBC) — an offer I could hardly refuse,” he says.

At the age of just 25, and yet to formally receive his degree, Pearcey found himself at the helm of the premier organization for the promotion of trade and investment between China and Australia.

With two-way trade surpassing the $100 billion mark, China was overtaking Japan as Australia’s largest trading partner and Chinese companies were investing in Australia at a record pace.

However, a storm was brewing that would test his powers of conciliation.

Notwithstanding the growing economic ties, Pearcey’s appointment came at a time of growing mistrust between China’s leadership and the then Rudd government.

“It was a perfect storm really,” he says. “Chinalco had failed in its bid for Rio Tinto shares; iron ore price negotiations were a source of great friction; Rio executive Stern Hu had been arrested over bribery charges; and Canberra made the diplomatic blunder of granting a visa to visiting Uygur separatist Rebiya Kadeer”.

Pearcey explains that the ACBC was bankrolled by a combination of the mining companies BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Chinalco. “Suddenly what seemed like a very abstract term — political economics — used by my professors assumed a very real meaning,” he says.

In October 2009, Pearcey fielded a call from the Chinese Embassy and was told that China’s then vice-premier, Li Keqiang, would be in Sydney and was looking for a speaking opportunity to reach out to the Australian business community.

“I frantically put out the call and arranged the who’s who of corporate Australia,” he says. “It was the most exhausting three days of my life but we provided Li with the platform to deliver his only speech during his landmark visit to Australia.”

Pearcey recalls that the visit was widely credited as being the icebreaker during a turbulent year for China and Australia.

Another major achievement for Pearcey was when he arranged for representatives from 150 Australian companies to visit Li Keqiang in China.

With more and more Australian companies looking to develop China connections, some of Australia’s largest companies and organizations turned to him for advice. These include coal producer Yancoal, Qantas airlines and Macquarie Bank. He has also worked with global companies like telecommunications giant Huawei and British Gas.

“It amazes me just how few large companies have dedicated China strategists equipped with the linguistic know-how and the knowledge of Chinese commercial and political culture,” Pearcey remarks.

Companies need to throw out their preconceived notions about doing business in China, he explains, and must also understand that they cannot expect to crack the country overnight.

“This is a long-term game and foreign companies are deluding themselves if they think they can play it using any other way.”

After four years at the council, Pearcey felt it was time for a new challenge.

At the age of 28 and at the forefront of almost all business, personal and political relations between Australia and its key trading partner, Pearcey was on the hit list of blue-chip corporations, government bodies and consultancies all around the Asia-Pacific.

Tony Nelson, managing director of the Sunrise Property Group tells China Daily Asia Weekly that they were ready to create a position for him.

“Everyone knew who this kid was,” Nelson says. “(He had) unbelievable rapport with both Chinese and local stakeholders at all levels.”

But resisting overtures from mining firms, bankers and infrastructure companies, Pearcey returned to his alma mater to head up a new China strategy and development unit.

The unit at the University of New South Wales is focused on leveraging Chinese industry investment in research, increasing its brand and consolidating its wider research and recruitment footprints across China.

Today Pearcey is also the director of the university’s Confucius Institute and is dedicated to promoting China awareness and leading executive education among top Australian companies.

“As a business, China is worth more than $150 million a year to the university. We have almost 6,000 Chinese students comprising more than 10 percent of the entire student population,” he says.

“Education requires a capacity for innovation and creativity — this has to be the future.”

And the future means China for Australia’s economy, as Nelson believes.

“Pearcey is a template. If we can produce more of them, (Australia) will get a foot in China’s door,” he says.

 

BIOGRAPHY:

LAURIE PEARCEY

Director, China strategy and development and director of the Confucius Institute, University of New South Wales

CAREER MILESTONES:

2009: Becomes CEO and company secretary of Australia China Business Council

2007: Appointed scholar of elite Order of Australia Association by Australia’s governor-general

2006: Becomes program host for Our Chinese Heart on China Central Television

2002: Consults for Sinopec on international strategy

2001: Interns for then shadow minister for foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd, as well as then Queensland natural resources minister

QUICK TAKES:

What are your interests outside of work?

Swiss watches, opera and fine food.

What is your philosophy?

Serve the people. The people for me are our students, our industry and government partners and the communities of Australia and China. It’s a simple slogan that sums up my service attitude.

What do you owe your achievements to?

A firm belief in and passion for China.

Something that most people don’t know about you?

I was ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand when I was 14.

This article first appeared in the China Daily.