Using the HNC experience to foster China-EU Business relations

Using the HNC experience to foster China-EU Business relations

Claudia Vernotti, MAIS '14, reflects on the value of her experiences at the HNC, and how the skills she acquired led to her career as Co-founder and Director of ChinaEU, a nonprofit organization which helps foster cooperation between European and Chinese companies in the digital sector. 

Tell us a bit more about your career and current role. How much have you built upon your HNC experience, and how much did you have to learn on the job?

The HNC gave me the direction, the inspiration, and the cultural sensibility to be able to pursue a career that matches two different worlds and business cultures. 

I did the one-year Certificate at the HNC and then opted to stay in Nanjing also for the master’s program. By that time, I had already lived in China for almost 3 years, but something told me that I was not done with China yet. First, I was not happy with my level of Chinese: learning Chinese is a never-ending process, but I wanted to get better. I was really excited about the idea of being able to say that I wrote a whole thesis in Chinese and learned from Chinese professors in Chinese, so I decided to stay for another 1.5 years. I have to admit that, in the process, I would sometimes ask myself “why am I doing that to myself?” Should I have studied international relations in English and then moved to China just for language courses instead of studying economics subjects in Chinese? But once I was there the challenge was driving me to continue; I really wanted to complete the thesis in Chinese and I eventually decided that this program made sense for me. My thesis was about Chinese investments into the EU. I looked into the trends that started to come up in the 2000s and the drivers - why Chinese companies were investing more into this part of the world. I decided, after doing this work, that I wanted to build a career on these trends, on Chinese investments into Europe, and on the EU-China economic relationship. 

My job at ChinaEU today is to identify opportunities for cooperation between European and Chinese companies in the digital sector and promote those opportunities. It is also about supporting Chinese companies in finding business partners in Europe and vice-versa or learning about the innovations in each other’s markets and bringing them back home. The digital business models and the policies affecting tech businesses in the EU and in China is something I had to learn on the ground, but the HNC had taught me the habits of thinking in other people’s shoes and solving problems by looking at them from other perspectives. 

In your current position, how often do you use Chinese or other skills you gained while studying at the HNC? 

I’m really lucky because I use Chinese quite a lot. At the beginning of my work at ChinaEU I travelled to China very often to build and maintain my network of business contacts. Many of the Chinese business leaders did not necessarily speak fluent English, and even if they did, they would prefer to express themselves in Chinese once they knew that they could. Now I don’t travel to China anymore, but I have Chinese colleagues and partners with whom I can speak Chinese on a regular basis. 

What was your favorite memory of the HNC? 

It was the mix of the everyday life things that you get used to in the HNC.  I shared my dorm with a Chinese lady and so eventually, I ended up following her schedule. She liked taking a nap after lunch, which a lot of Chinese students do, so I would join her for short naps, and I maintained this habit for quite some time. I have other little memories like studying together in the libraries. Sometimes we would take a break with coffee which some HNC students had brought from Yunnan and prepared the American way. We also used to go to the main lake in Nanjing – Xuanwu hu - or walk along the ancient city wall.  The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is a small community, and most students live in the dorms, so eventually you really get to know people and build special relationships. 

What has been the most fulfilling moment or accomplishment for you since your time at the HNC? 

Definitely writing the thesis in Chinese – this was the most fulfilling and special thing at the HNC, because it is quite rare as a European or American to be able to say that you did that, in Chinese. 

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is now 35 years old. What do you see as the value of the HNC in the next 35 years? 

One of the editors on foreign relations in the Financial Times has recently written an article on China’s self-isolation, in which he ends up saying – “the biggest and most intangible effect (of China’s zero-covid policy, self-imposed isolation) may be on the Chinese people:  it is much easier to believe that foreigners are dangerous and decadent if you never meet them.” I read this and I thought, wow, this is the case, and it is also the case the other way around. I think if I had never set foot in China and the only information I had was given to me by today’s foreign media analysis, I would probably think that China is a horrible place. The role of HNC in the future should be to continue to bridge and facilitate the people-to-people exchange because it is crucial to understanding China. The media coverage we have is never really objective: there is often some political intention behind the narrative about any specific country or situation. Independently of what the policies of the country are, it’s important to have an actual real understanding as a basis instead of relying on a second-hand analysis, sometimes done by someone who has never even traveled there. I think the most important goal of the HNC is to continue to do the job that it is doing because if we, not only Americans but also Europeans, don’t study in China, it will be very difficult for the rest of the world to understand China. We have more cases of Chinese students coming to different US or European universities, but for the foreigners going to China, the HNC is one of the few options, if you want a program where you can really understand international relations by Chinese professors, in an open environment, and together with other Chinese students. 

What is one piece of advice you have for current or future HNC Students?  

For people who are still debating whether to do HNC or not, don’t have doubts. The essence of the program is to go there and understand the country and the people better, despite, or maybe because of, all the tensions which exist now between China and the rest of the world. Don’t have doubts and make the most you can out of the experience. I suppose some people are thinking that it’s more difficult to have a career in or linked to China now than it was in the past, or maybe that having an education focused on China might be negative for your future career because of the general climate of – mutual – mistrust around China. But don’t doubt. Almost everything related to China now, not just sensitive and strategic issues, is interpreted negatively, which I think is excessive because the world is not built to be black and white, and the truth is never as simple as described. There is so much misunderstanding about China, which is why these exact students are needed. Also, China remains a major power in the world and a key partner to tackle global issues. This also means there will continue to be a demand for experts who understand China more deeply than the average person.  

Interview conducted by Kalina Pateva