A great walk

Rural schools to benefit from 55km trek on Great Wall


Stuart Tait on the Great Wall last week

When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 he remarked that “it takes a great people to build a Great Wall” in reference to the country’s most famous landmark.

But to paraphrase Nixon, a walk on the Great Wall can promote a great cause, too.

Last week 100 staff from HSBC and KPMG trekked 55km along a stretch of the Wall just outside Beijing. The journey took five days and was arranged by Just Challenge, a Hong Kong-based organisation that designs challenges to promote corporate social responsibility. In this case, the 50 participants from HSBC raised over $75,000 from colleagues and friends (and the bank says that donations are still coming in).

Some of the HSBC participants talked to WiC towards the end of the trek about the challenges of the trip and the causes that will benefit.

This was anything but a stroll. “They didn’t build the Great Wall where it would be easiest, but deliberately where it would be hardest – on the spine of the ridges. We are doing as many as 30,000 steps a day and 200 flights of stairs. I don’t think there are any flat sections!” said Stuart Tait, Regional Head of Commercial Banking, Asia-Pacific.

“We have people on the walk with varying degrees of fitness. For some it was a major challenge – it was pretty clear that it was the biggest physical challenge they’ve ever had.”

David Liao on the 55km trek

“On Tuesday we walked on a stretch of the wall that had just been reopened to groups. It was quite stunning,” added David Liao, CEO of HSBC China. “But it was the good causes that attracted a lot of staff to volunteer for this trek. There are two fundraising streams for HSBC: for Hong Kong it is the Community Chest, and for mainland China it is the Western Sunshine Rural Development Foundation, which we have worked with for a long time.”

HSBC’s Asia-Pacific head of corporate sustainability Zhang Hui Feng told WiC the bank has been working with Western Sunshine in Gansu province since 2012. The charity focuses on rural schools where the majority of the pupils are so-called ‘left behind’ children (kids of migrant workers that have gone to cities to work ­– there is an estimated 60 million such children).

“They live with their grandparents, some of them walk three to four hours to their school and spend the whole week boarding and then go back home on weekends,” commented Zhang.

“Our donations to Western Sunshine pay for social workers to go to those schools to help the children cope and every year my HSBC colleagues will volunteer to spend a week at the schools. We sponsored four schools at the beginning and now that’s extended to 16. Every year we recruit 20 HSBC colleagues from across China to spend a week in each school – it is oversubscribed four to five times.”

“When these volunteers are on their way back to the train station I ask them to reflect on their experience in the schools and very often they burst into tears. They are deeply moved by the social workers’ dedication to the children there.”

The funds raised on the charity walk will add to the Rmb9.3 million HSBC has donated to Western Sunshine over the past six years. “I am so pleased. We have engaged so many colleagues via this Great Wall Walk, particularly through our staff’s WeChat groups. The use of social media has also helped to raise awareness of Western Sunshine and the good work they are doing in Gansu,” noted Zhang.

Tait said the whole experience has been incredibly valuable: “One of the things that comes across is how proud people feel: proud of the physical challenge, proud of raising the money, and proud of the company they work for. People feel really good about this. We have a big business in China and it is good to be able to give something back and to make that known to our staff around the world.”

He added that there have been other benefits aside from raising funds: “We have deliberately tried to have a real mix of people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and all levels of seniority, all ages, and a good mixture of departments. It’s nice for those on the walk to see David [Liao] and some other senior people in a relaxed mode, and also being challenged – because one or two of the senior guys aren’t so fit!”

“We are moving along in groups of 25 and it is a chance to have a proper talk and understand what life is like for colleagues and their families, and to learn how they think about the world. One of the great surprises is that many of my mainland Chinese colleagues had perhaps been to the Great Wall when they were children but not been back since, and certainly not to the parts we’ve been to.”

Liao took a similar view: “The meaningful parts are twofold: it serves the community, and it’s a great way to spend time with colleagues in a unique way. We get to know each other in a deeper fashion, rather than rationing our time into five-minute meetings.

“It’s also nice to have the mix with the KPMG folk – it stops us falling back into the bank hierarchy. I’ve had a KPMG guy sleeping in the bed next to mine in the shared accommodation over the past few days. So it’s really communal: living together, doing the challenge together and occasionally talking about how things are within the bank and within KPMG.”

Liao added the daily trek along the Great Wall also gave insights into what life is like in the less developed parts of China: “You get a glimpse of life in the less fortunate rural areas, where children often trek the same length day-in and day -out, just to go to school.”

Tait now hopes to work with Just Challenge on similar staff engagement exercises. “There’s overwhelming demand for employees to get involved. This trek was many times oversubscribed, particularly compared to events open to the broader employee-base. And we know from staff engagement surveys that one of the things they want from us is to help give back to their communities. Here we are seeing it.”

And there will be some unique memories too. “We’ve averaged between five to seven hours of walking a day. We’ve seen the fully-renovated, heavily-visited sections of the wall, and the other bits which are out in the wilderness and where the wall is in disrepair. But throughout the trek the wall has always been dramatic. It’s terrific,” Tait concluded.

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