Exclusive: Founder of China's first joint venture tells her story
Updated 11:26, 04-Nov-2019
By Wang Xiaonan

Annie Wu Suk-ching, the honorary president of Beijing Air Catering – the first joint venture on the Chinese mainland – is one of the lucky few to have witnessed up-close a new historical era in China unfold. Her first tour of the mainland from Hong Kong ended one day after the conclusion of the third plenary session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in December,1978, which kicked off the era of reform and opening-up. Over the past 40 years, she has shuttled between the mainland and Hong Kong for business and initiatives in education and philanthropy.

In an exclusive interview with CGTN on Saturday, Wu – nicknamed "Miss 001" – vividly unfurls a picture of how she and her father James Tak Wu, founder of Hong Kong's largest catering group Maxim's, became part of the mega story of the building of modern China based on trust and mutual respect.

The following are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

CGTN: Can you tell us your story with China's reform and opening-up over the past four decades?

Wu: For my first trip, I came to Beijing with my father to discuss the joint venture with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). We were to start the joint venture for airline catering on the inaugural Pan Am direct nonstop flight to Beijing. With that joint venture, we opened the doors for international business in China. So that was very interesting because at that the time, China had no joint venture laws and no legal documents, so we had to bring the certificates of cooperation and joint venture laws from Hong Kong to be implemented and amended by Beijing. Also at that time, Beijing needed foreign exchange. So from our part, my father, together with his partners, invested 5 million Hong Kong dollars.

However, because it took time to approve the joint venture, about five months after our discussion, in November, the director-general of the CAAC asked us to come back and said because they still needed a lot of time to approve the joint venture, he suggested that my father pay the amount first. We just had a handshake and invested the money. My father suggested that since we're all Chinese, we believe in the open-door policy of the late Mr. Deng Xiaoping. So he went back and together with his partners put in the 5 million Hong Kong dollars to buy all the equipment to send the money to Beijing. Then we started the setup of the operation and the joint venture before the approval of all the documents.

Then in 1980, March 3, we learned from the CAAC that Deng Xiaoping finally approved the joint venture, so that on the 12th of April, we got the document which was approved by the department to approve foreign investment at the time. We opened our joint venture on May 1. So in China, we always think that this is the way to do business – you have the egg before you have the mother hen.

The certificate issued by the China Foreign Investment Management Committee for Beijing Air Catering, April 1980.

The certificate issued by the China Foreign Investment Management Committee for Beijing Air Catering, April 1980.

CGTN: What are the difficulties in your business connected to the Chinese mainland?

Wu: A joint venture is not a continuous business. Every time, when the joint venture (contract) is about to be completed, you have to discuss another term. It's not a permanent business. So that's why our friends from overseas are very scared of joint ventures – they prefer to have a wholly owned business.

When you do business in China, it's really your trust and your mutual respect for your partner in which you can really try to get the proper assistance.

A few years after we established the business, we constantly had other problems to solve. In China, we always have the Party system. That means under the joint venture, the chairman is subject to the Party control and system, and inside the joint venture, you also have the Party system. A lot of foreign businessmen are not used to this Party system inside the companies and what you call the labor union. So it takes time to understand how to do business in China, because it's a different approach to running the business and also a different attitude to working with your partners, who are mainly Communist Party cadres. Also, in a way you have to understand how to work with the union to run the business and to educate your workers to do the business properly.

People walk past a billboard featuring an image of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China, December 14, 2018. /VCG Photo

People walk past a billboard featuring an image of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, China, December 14, 2018. /VCG Photo

CGTN: Your family established in 1980 the first joint venture on the mainland – the Beijing Air Catering Company, which provides catering on direct flights between China and the U.S. Back then, their friendship blossomed. But now their ties have rapidly deteriorated over conflicts in trade, technology and even academia. Do you feel aggrieved?

Wu: I think the friendship between China and the U.S. is always, I would use the word, a seesaw. It's up and down.

If you look at the relationship, it's been 200 years. My late grandfather went to the U.S. in the 1880s. My grandfather was born in America. Because in our hometown, we were so poor that if we hadn't gone overseas, we would have starved to death. So the people-to-people relationship between China and the U.S. has always been continuous for the last 200 years.

But the relationship you're talking about is really government-to-government and also the relationship between the different factions. It takes a lot of people-to-people exchange to improve the understanding between China and the U.S. I think it's something that from China we have to work harder on to create a better understanding with the American public, especially with the different American politicians in their home states because they are elected. For example, certain state governments will now bring their delegations to China because they need the business from China. They want to sell the beans and other kinds of crops to China. So they are very friendly with China.

A street scene in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, 1993. /VCG Photo

A street scene in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, 1993. /VCG Photo

CGTN: In your eyes, what are the most impressive changes in China over the past 40 years?

Wu: When the whole world was undergoing the industrial revolution, China was still in the formative years because the PRC has only been in existence for 70 years. So we only really started to have the reform and open-door policy in 1978. In 1979, we started to think about doing business in China and also have what we call the socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics. So China was the latecomer in terms of business, but they did not have to be confronted with the difficulties from the industrial revolution. So it could really zoom past the heavyweights and under the market economy with speedier progress. Also, within the population in China, the young people are very well educated. 

Remember in 1979, Deng Xiaoping allowed people to study in universities. So afterwards, some of them went overseas to study in the U.S. and other countries. They became the real technical force and human resource with knowledge to build up the last 40 years of the open-door policy and improvement in the economy. Without all these young people, without the open-door policy, I don't think China would have moved so much in 30 years, which is about 100 years in other countries.

On the other hand, due to rapid economic development, we have overlooked problems on pollution and other problems. So we now have to be a little bit slower and look at how we can help out with the people who are being left behind in the rapid economy.

Every country has growing pains. Some countries have economic problems; other countries may have political infighting. So we have to take care of our problems because we are a big family.

I think the system under President Xi is really about eliminating poverty. It's very important. And it also focuses on the real economy – how to develop the villages to build them into smart communities. I think this is a very unique point for China to look at in the years to come.

Reporter: Wang Xiaonan

Videographer: Zhang Wanbao

Video editor: Ge Ning

Cover image designer: Qu Bo

Supervisor: Zhang Shilei 

The interview was conducted on the sidelines of the sixth China Inbound-Outbound Forum hosted by the Center for China and Globalization. Ms. Annie Wu also talked about the Hong Kong situation. Stay tuned for more.