When Tessa Keswick first visited China in 1982, working for an investment company looking for opportunities in the newly open country, business meetings were dispiriting affairs. “Everyone was wearing cloth caps and sitting there like this,” she says, hunching her body. “They were all complete Communists and everything was dark and miserable.”

Yet returning in 1997, with her husband, Henry Keswick — then chairman of Jardine Matheson, the Hong Kong-based conglomerate that was built on the lucrative opium trade and today has $64 billion of assets, including the Mandarin Oriental hotel group — the situation was transformed.

Very Like Americans

“There were all these young executives in suits who were free-marketeers. They’d suddenly been released into this new world and, whether it was in the Gobi desert or at the top of the Yangtze, they wanted their people to succeed. The Chinese are very like the Americans, or perhaps the way the Americans were. They are natural capitalists and love being rich. The big cars, the big buildings — you see it all now in the Chinese cities.”

Keswick, 77, is sitting in her London home, yards from the Houses of Parliament. The family, whose private fortune is calculated by The Sunday Times Rich List at $8.3 billion, have a main home in Wiltshire, and 18,000 acres in Scotland. She has written a book, The Colour of the Sky after Rain, about her decades of travels in China, during which she has seen it become a country where “you really feel you’re looking at the future”.

As every nation and big business tries to build relationships with this new superpower, Keswick — who spent several long stints staying with a Chinese family to improve her Mandarin — is concerned about the mutual “fear and suspicion” between China and the West. “Very few people know China well, or the Chinese,” she says. “But they make up one-fifth of the world’s population. We must get on with them and the only way to do that is to see them as they are and not expect things from them that are not in their culture. What the Chinese like are people who are appreciative of them. They are becoming more westernised, but underneath it all is a feeling of, ‘Why don’t these people understand what I’m like?’ ”

“We must get on with them and the only way to do that is to see them as they are and not expect things from them that are not in their culture.”

Fundamental to understanding the Chinese, she says, is China’s lack of an independent judicial system. “[Britons] can communicate on an ordinary polite level, we don’t need to have a real understanding between us, because we know if something goes wrong we can go to the law and have all sorts of protections. But the Chinese have none of that. They call themselves laobaixing, ‘ordinary people’, because there really is nothing between them and the emperor. It has been that way for thousands of years and means they are much more enterprising and resilient than us, but also far more cautious and don’t really open up until they trust you and feel you are telling them absolutely the truth.”

“Why Do You Lecture Us?”

Those looking to woo the Chinese would do well to follow the example of Shanghai-born Sir Henry, 81, who steered his company through the choppy post-Mao waters. “He would never ask them for anything, because he doesn’t want to put them in a position of saying no. That would mean loss of face. You have to be incredibly subtle if you want something and build up a relationship. People going in and being all ‘hard-nosed executive’ is something the Chinese find quite difficult.” Nor, however, should one grovel. “It’s a natural British reaction to say, ‘Your cities are so much bigger than ours, your roads are so much better,’ but the Chinese don’t like that. They long for success. But they’re very humble, so they don’t want you to show off either.” British smoothness can also bamboozle. “We’re very good at being polite, but what is behind that? The Chinese sense that immediately.”

Tessa Keswick, author of The Colour of the Sky After Rain, at home in London.

Mindful of family business interests, she doesn’t want to discuss the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “The Chinese look at the Americans and say, ‘Why do you lecture us? You’ve got 2.3m people in prison — we don’t. You bomb the whole of the Middle East to bits.’ They cannot understand how the Americans do that.

“If only we could have what the Foreign Office calls constructive engagement [with the Chinese], rather than lecture other people on human rights,” Keswick says. “If you start telling countries what to do, you’ve had it.”