Two motherlands

Updated: 2011-04-22 11:27

By Fu Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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Two motherlands

Henri Lederhandler was one of the first Europeans to set
up a trading business in New China. FU JING / CHINA DAILY

Seventy-eight-year-old Belgian businessman reflects on almost half a century of his pioneering adventures in China

In 1955, the late premier Zhou Enlai received a 22-year-old Henri Lederhandler when he led the Belgium Youth League to China. On Lederhandler's second visit seven years later, he spoke briefly with Mao Zedong and in the days of reform and opening up, was a frequent guest of Chinese leaders.

These cherished memories can be seen in the delicately framed photographs on the walls of his two-floor office, hidden in a picturesque and quiet northern suburb of Brussels.

Still proud of his support of New China during the cold-war days when Western powers isolated the socialist country, Lederhandler, 78, says his privileged access to China has been the catalyst of his busy and fruitful life.

"My time has always been divided into two parts," says Lederhandler, chairman of President Sodexim Sino-Belgian Trade SA, an export agent specializing in selling steel, chemicals and machinery to China.

He devotes half his energy to his business, which started after shaking hands with Mao, and the other half fulfilling his responsibilities as vice-chairman of Belgium-China Economic and Commercial Council.

Lederhandler says he enjoys giving lectures and organizing seminars to promote Sino-Belgium relations on economy, trade and cultures.

"This is very natural for me as I have two motherlands: one is Belgium where I was born and the other is China," he says.

Lederhandler is Jewish and in 1921 his father moved to Brussels from Poland and started to work in a coal mine. Twelve years later, Lederhandler was born.

World War II delivered tragedy to the family with his father dying in a concentration camp forcing his mother to bring up four children on her own.

In 1941, when he was 9, he was lucky to escape the Holocaust when Nazis began arresting all Jews. A Belgian woman rescued some 300 children and Lederhandler and his brother were among them. Andree Geulen-Herscovici hid the children in a very remote area on the French border. Today she is 90, still lives in Brussels and Lederhandler meets her regularly.

After the war, Lederhandler left school at age 14 and worked for a leather company, later serving in the army during 1951-53.

After military service, he worked in a Brussels library, which had rich collections of books and images from China. The library was a treasure for a young Lederhandler. "I learnt by myself and am a self-made man," he says.

During that time he became the leader of the Young Communist Belgium League, responsible for international liaison and soon befriended his Chinese counterparts based in London and Switzerland. He quickly developed close bonds with Wu Xueqian, who was responsible for China's Youth League and later became foreign minister and vice-premier of China. "Wu was my first Chinese friend," Lederhandler says.

Five years after New China was founded in 1949, Wu asked Lederhandler to organize leaders from different political parties of Belgium to visit China. He arranged a 10-member delegation to visit China at a time when Western countries shunned the new socialist country. Former premier Zhou Enlai received him on this first monumental trip.

In 1957, Lederhandler joined the Belgium Communist Party and help found the Belgium-China Friendship Association developing more respect for the world's new socialist state.

He made his allegiance known over the next few years when a rift developed between China and Soviet Union, and when China's relations with India soured.

"I was always a firm China supporter," Lederhandler says.

But in 1963, his passionate pro-China stance caused him to be expelled by the Belgian Communist Party and fired from his job.

His Chinese friends in Europe came to his rescue and encouraged him to start a Sino-Europe trading business. By late 1963 he had met Mao, made contact with Chinese trade officials and with his wife Bagisz Dora, set up a company in downtown Brussels importing and exporting chemicals, coal, machinery and steel to and from China.

Lederhandler was one of very few foreigners who had easy access to Chinese markets.

"Many big companies wanted to do business with China but they had no contactswe worked as an agent for them," Lederhandler says.

From 1963-1980, he traveled to China twice a year and by 2007, the French-speaker had counted 65 trips.

"I even learned English from my Chinese friends during negotiations so what I spoke is Chinglish," says Lederhandler.

In his early days, his clients were national trading companies and business only occurred in offices in Beijing or at trade fairs in Guangdong.

But since the opening-up period, China's joint venture policy has significantly changed the business landscape, he says.

For example, during 1963-93, Lederhandler acted as an agent for Belgium's leading steel wire company, Bekaert, exporting products to China. In the early 1990s, Bekaert, like many other large European companies, wanted to invest in China's rapidly growing economy. "We helped find a Chinese partner and then our exports stopped," says Lederhandler.

His company has now grown to a staff of 15, with eight workers located in Beijing, and business has always been steady.

"For years, our business has been stable and even during the most difficult time in 2008, there was no deal cancellations," says Lederhandler, adding his company is involved in contracts worth 100-150 million euros every year.

"My business philosophy is that with a few people, we make big deals," he says.

His face beams when he talks about his first big deal in 1979 involving supplying two power plants, worth $200 million, to Pingdingshan in Central China's Henan province.

"It was my job to talk with the authorities on both sides to accept the negotiations," he says.

Later his company developed metallurgical protects in key centers such as Wuhan, Baoshan, Anshan, Panzhihua and put together a Sino-Belgian joint venture for the production of steel cord for radial tire in Jiangyin, Jiangsu province.

Business today keeps flowing with Lederhandler recently landing a deal to sell 10,000 metric tons of special steel to China.

His competitive advantage, he says, is that his firm was one of the first trading companies in western Europe working in China.

"We made a very big impact to China market. Being well known, well introduced and having reputation is our power," Lederhandler says.

Apart from doing business, Lederhandler, whose Chinese name is Li Dehan, has been actively involved in promoting Belgium-China relations. His many Chinese friends affectionately call him "Lao Li" or "Old Li".

"Lao Li is China's old friend and I always thank him for his contribution to China," says Zhang Yuanyuan, Chinese Ambassador to Belgium.

Lederhandler has one son and a daughter. His son, Eric, 45, is a famous music conductor in Belgium and often teaches Chinese master class students.

Lederhandler also holds the position of vice-chairman of Belgium-China Economic and Commercial Council (BCECC).

BCECC chairman Bernard Dewit says the Belgian's extraordinary life is highly revered. "Thanks to his intelligence, his energy and his human qualities he succeeded in his professional life, without having inherited any money or special relations from his parents," he says.


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