Saanich-born entrepreneur Alistair Vigier – recently named by B.C. Business as one of the Top 30 under 30 Entrepreneurs in 2017 – is glad to be back home after spending five weeks in China on behalf of Hart Legal. The Victoria-based legal firm specializing in family law is currently exploring business opportunities in the emerging global power, and as the company’s vice-president of business development, Vigier has been at the forefront leading those efforts, along with locals.
Vigier’s interest in China has professional and personal roots.
“Half of the investors in Hart Legal are Chinese,” he said. “I have been trying to learn Chinese as well. So I kind of got tired of just speaking about it, and I wanted to actually go over and see what the place was like. Everything is different on the ground than what you hear about it and read about it in the news.”
What Vigier discovered was in many ways a place of extremes. Some of the Chinese locations were still developing. Others like Bejing and Shanghai were as advanced as they come, and China’s growing, prosperous middle class of some 130 million offers unprecedented business opportunities.
Vigier admitted to some apprehensions when it came to visiting a state that controlled – or least tries to control – every aspect of life. One concerned access to the Internet and its major sites, like Google, Facebook and Youtube.
“I wasn’t even sure if my email was going to work,” he said. For the record, the Chinese government blocks access to the Saanich News. “You guys are blocked, but B.C. Business isn’t. Somewhere [along the way], you said something that got you blocked.”
Vigier was also nervous about running afoul of the Chinese state. “You hear a lot about of executions, and throwing away people into jail forever for essentially not doing anything,” he said.
In the end, Vigier adapted by using Chinese equivalents. But he also witnessed several authoritarian aspects. “Every time you get on the subway they check your bags, they check your water, they actually have scanners for your water,” he said. “Your ID is checked everywhere. But they were actually more concerned about Chinese [residents] than foreigners.”
All residents carry ID cards, which they need to scan if they want to access facilities of cultural significance like Tiananmen Square. “For me, they barely looked at my passport, they really didn’t care. Their main concern is over a revolution. They have such tight control. They are horrified of it.”
Vigier said he expected to encounter people complaining about censorship, while expressing the desire to live like western citizens. But that did not necessarily happen. “They want clean air,” he said. “They speak exclusively about that, but they don’t have the same experiences that we have. They are not used to Facebook, they are not used to Google. They don’t care about these things, because they don’t have exposure to them. They are very used to living in a controlled environment. They don’t think twice about it.”
Vigier also encountered a very different business culture. He expected to talk about business, but was told not to do so. Initial meetings instead served the purpose of getting to know potential business partners. Business meetings also often involve large quantities of alcohol.
“Once you start drinking they expect you to drink at the same pace as they do,” he said. “This may involve consuming six to eight drinks…possibly over lunch.”
Part of this personalized business culture reflects the nature of the Chinese legal system. “Their justice system is not as evolved as ours, it is still developing,” he said. “So it is a very unpredictable legal system, and essentially Chinese people put their faith in the reputation of people, instead of the legal system. So it is more important that someone has ins with you, because they know that you won’t screw them over.”
Personal gifts also play an important part in fostering relations, a tradition that has encouraged corruption. “There is a lot of corruption there, which the government acknowledges,” said Vigier.
Unpredictability and corruption are nothing short of poisonous for any business, but especially for a business that offers legal services. “We are not going to bet the farm on it [China], that’s for sure,” he said. As a still developing country, China bears high risks, but also offers high rewards. “We have to understand that we could lose everything,” he said.
It is a matter of weighing pros and cons, and Hart Legal has been speaking with local regulatory lawyers. “We are told that if we stay on the right side of the government that we should be fine. We have some really good connections there already. That is how we are minimizing risk. If we just went over there, without any Chinese partners, we would just get massacred.”