40 years of reform and opening up

Lee Kuan Yew among foreigners honoured for helping China to open up

  • China recognises statesmen, engineers, entrepreneurs and diplomats whose skills played a vital part in reforming economy and elevating country to powerhouse status
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 11:10pm

China honoured 10 foreigners on Tuesday, including Singapore’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, for their part in realising the policy of reform and opening up that propelled China’s economic miracle.

The recipients of the China Reform Friendship Medals are foreigners Beijing regards as having played a key role in helping China open up to the world economically and diplomatically.

Lee, once praised by Chinese President Xi Jinping as “an old friend of the Chinese people”, was awarded for leading Singapore to “deeply engage” in China’s reform and opening. The city state has been an inspiration for China on how to achieve economic prosperity under one-party rule.

Two Japanese – former prime minister Masayoshi Ohira and industrialist Konosuke Matsushita – made the list, lauded respectively for their contribution to normalising Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations and bringing electronics giant Panasonic to China’s newly opened market.

Maurice Greenberg, the former chief executive of American International Group, is also an award recipient. Greenberg was among the first American people to do business in China following Richard Nixon’s efforts to re-establish ties in the 1970s.

The other American on the list is Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a long-time adviser to Chinese leaders and the host of Closer to China with RL Kuhn on the state-run China Global Television Network, lauded for his devotion to “telling [the story of] contemporary China to the world”.

Xi Jinping: China to stick to Communist rule and its own path to cope with ‘unimaginable’ perils

Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based commentator, said that by hailing the contribution of foreigners, Beijing was seeking to ease concerns over its commitment to economic reform.

“The environment China is facing has been deteriorating amid the Sino-US trade war, and many worry China may not continue to open up,” Hu said.

“By praising these foreigners’ contributions, China is trying to stabilise the inflow of foreign investment, and to reaffirm that it would keep expanding external exchanges, including technology, human and education.”


Alain Mérieux

Mérieux, a French businessman and the chairman of Institut Mérieux, a medicine and public health conglomerate specialising in diagnostics, immunotherapy and nutrition, is recognised for his contribution to China’s health care industry.

Since his first visit to China in 1978, Mérieux, grandson of Marcel Mérieux, the founder of the institute, worked closely with China, especially on major public health issues, including outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and H7N9 bird flu, according to a report by Yicai.

Institut Mérieux has set up research centres in China, most notably the country’s first high-security biosafety laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province in 2014. That can handle Class 4 pathogens (P4) – viruses that pose a high risk of person-to-person transmission, such as those that cause haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola.

Werner Gerich

Gerich was described as the first foreign factory director of a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

The German engineer, then 65, arrived in 1984. Gerich, along with two other Germans, was sent by the Bonn-based Senior Experten Service, which is a voluntary organisation that puts the expertise of retired German professionals to work in other countries. He was first hired as a consultant at a state-run diesel motor factory in Wuhan, in central China.

Gerich, an expert in engine manufacturing and iron core technology, put more than 100 proposals for rationalisation in a 100,000-word consultation paper. He also volunteered to serve as factory director at the Wuhan Diesel Engine Plant. The local party committee and municipal government then agreed to hire him.

In his two years as director, Gerich was famously known for reforming aspects of the company from product quality, factory hygiene, company organisation structure and factory workers’ livelihoods. The achievement earned him great professional distinction and the nickname Mr Quality.

Gerich, who died in 2003, was honoured by Germany and China for bridging Sino-German relations, and there is a bronze bust of him in Hanzheng Street, Wuhan.

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Klaus Schwab

Founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Schwab is the only head of an international organisation on the medallist list.

The German economist has retained his optimistic views of China’s economic growth prospects amid a simmering trade war between China and the US.

When meeting Xi in April this year, he openly supported China in the advancement of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, despite the global infrastructure plan being isolated by major Western powers for its lack of transparency and accusations of debt traps.

Konosuke Matsushita

He was a Japanese industrialist and the founder of Panasonic, the Japanese consumer electronics company which was one of the earliest foreign players in China after opening up.

In October 1978, shortly after he reassumed power, Deng Xiaoping, then vice-premier, visited Japan, where he toured a Panasonic factory in Ibaraki prefecture, and it was Matsushita – then aged 83 and in retirement – who greeted Deng on his arrival at the factory.

According to People’s Daily, Deng asked for advice from Matsushita on how Japanese companies could help China’s economic modernisation, especially on how to rebuild China’s electronics industry.

Months later, Matsushita visited Beijing and advised Deng on how China could work with overseas companies on technical matters and on establishing joint ventures.

In May 1987, Panasonic and the Beijing municipal government signed an agreement to set up a joint venture to manufacture picture tubes for colour televisions. This was Panasonic’s first investment in China after the second world war and the largest China-Japan joint venture at that time, making Panasonic a household name for Chinese families.

Masayoshi Ohira

Ohira was a Japanese foreign minister who in 1972 played a key role when China and Japan, foes in the second world war, established formal diplomatic relations.

In 1979, during his visit as prime minister to Beijing, Ohira spoke to Deng about the idea of Japan’s official development assistance to China and, after that, Japan offered trillions of yen in long-term assistance to Beijing, which provided important financial support to the early stage of opening up.

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee, Singapore’s founding prime minister, was honoured by China for his role in pushing for “the deep involvement of the city state in China’s reform and opening up”.

Lee paid 33 visits to China between 1976 and 2015, establishing contact with most of China’s leaders in that period. It was also said Lee was the first foreign guest received by Xi Jinping after Xi was promoted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Deng and Lee developed a long friendship after Deng’s landmark visit to Singapore in 1978. In 1992, Deng described Singapore as an example for China.

In 1990, Singapore became the final member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations to set up diplomatic relations with China.

Lee was also a friend to Taiwan, helping the landmark cross-strait bilateral talks between Wang Daohan, chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, and Koo Chen-fu, head of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation, in 1993.



Juan Antonio Samaranch

Samaranch, the former president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has been considered a “good friend” to Beijing.

During his presidency between 1980 to 2001, China gradually emerged as a major sporting power, most notably in 2001 when Beijing was chosen by the IOC to host the 2008 Summer Olympics – a decision that was hailed as fulfilling China’s “100-year dream” of hosting the Olympics.

Stephen Perry

Perry is chairman of the 48 Group Club, an independent business network committed to promoting positive links with China, and he has been involved with China since the earliest days of reform and opening up.

He started working on China more than 40 years ago, when he took over running his family’s import and export business. His father, Jack Perry, was leader of the Icebreaker group to China in 1953. Icebreaker developed business ties with China in the 1950s when it was otherwise isolated from the West.

Stephen Perry is widely recognised as one of Britain’s leading experts on China. After studying law at University College London, he joined the London Export Corporation – then evolved from the Icebreaker group – in a full-time capacity.

London Export Corporation traded commodities with China and distributed Chinese consumer goods in Britain.

Perry opened up US-China trade for the company in the early 1970s and went on to establish subsidiaries. In the early 1990s, he brokered some of the most important deals of that period in China.

More recently, he turned his deal making skills to Africa for Chinese and Western companies.

Maurice Greenberg

The former chairman and chief executive of American International Group (AIG), Greenberg was considered a “behind-the-scenes advocate” when the US Congress agreed to grant permanent normal trade relations status to China, which paved the way for Beijing to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

He has also been active in philanthropy in China, donating tens of millions of dollars to environmental, educational, medical and cultural causes in China.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Kuhn was described by Chinese state news agency Xinhua as “a friend who is committed to telling the world about contemporary China”.

The 74-year-old is known as an investment banker and corporate strategist for international companies, but he has also been an adviser to Chinese officials.

Kuhn met Xi Jinping in 2006 when Xi was Zhejiang party secretary.

The New Yorker is also an author whose work about China has been published extensively.

Of the 25 books he has written, the biography The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin (2004) earned him a great reputation in China. He hosts Closer to China with RL Kuhn on state broadcaster CCTV.