UCL Alumni


Alumni stories: Bridging the cultural divide with Ryan Li

28 June 2019

Ahead of his address at graduation on July 1, Ryan Li speaks about what he's achieved since graduating in 2018 and why he so passionate about fostering cultural connections between the UK and China.

Ryan Li

When UCL alumnus Ryan Li first came to the UK from China aged 12, he quickly realised that there were many misconceptions about his home country. His peers were fascinated by his culture but there was a distinct lack of resources for them to learn about it. This gave Ryan the seeds of an idea which would eventually grow into a hugely important annual event for British-Chinese relations: the Sino British Summit. 

Studying at Fettes College Boarding School in Scotland, the students were excited to find out more about Ryan’s Chinese heritage. He says: “As I progressed and learnt about British culture, the more my fellow students learnt from me about what China is about.

“I realised that while people were interested, there was a lack of resources directly linked to China. So that’s when I started to think: why don’t I do something and make a contribution to this.” 

Ryan started to focus his attention on the politics and economics between the UK and China with the view of encouraging a new, inclusive mindset in the next generation. Aged 16, he invested the profits from his portfolio to set up the Ryan Li Fund, which provides mentoring and funding opportunities for students interested in politics and economics. 

Kickstarting the Sino British Summit
When it was time to apply for university, Ryan chose UCL to help him further his vision of a platform for improved UK-China relations. 

He says: “The reason I went for UCL is because it has a more comprehensive way of learning - more rounded - with an enhanced understanding of the world, rather than just a focus on the subject. I picked a BA in History, Politics and Economics because I loved the idea of learning three subjects together – comprehensively and consecutively.”

In 2016, after a summer internship at Huawei, Ryan decided to take his ideas to the next stage. He says: “I was attending China-related events across London but most of them, nearly 90% I’d say, were run by universities and focussed on academics. 

“From my perspective, there were no platforms independent from an institution. I think this creates a bias. That’s why I wanted to create a new structure with different themes featuring people from different walks of life.” 

Ryan set up the Sino British Summit as a non-profit organisation with the aim of promoting cultural and business exchanges between the UK and China. Its annual events encourage free dialogue among the current and future stakeholders in the Sino British relationship. The board of directors has an average age of 21.

Ryan adds: “Because we’re independent and the board of directors has two Brits and two Chinese people, it gives us the balance we think is important and necessary to really hear the views and ideas of different sides. 

“Both countries have a long history and a huge influence in the world, and there are plenty of similarities – take our focus on tradition for example. But a lot of this cultural understanding stays at the very high level of politicians and business leaders. Young entrepreneurs and academics also want to have a nuanced understanding but where can they access it? There’s a lack of platforms for them to learn and understand, and engage with their counterparts in China. Creating the summit is my first step towards solving that.” 

The annual summit has been attended by more than 700 delegates since 2016, and hosted notable speakers: 15 executives from Fortune 500 companies, three senior leadership from the world's top 10 universities and many former political leaders. It’s gained the attention of significant figures including Theresa May, former US Vice-President Al Gore, Dr Liam Fox and more, who have all expressed support for the venture. The next summit will be in 2020.  

Global support from the UCL alumni network 
Since Ryan graduated in 2018, he’s continued to be actively involved with UCL, even helping UCL to be more active in China. He says: “The alumni network has given me a great deal of encouragement and passion, and I think UCL alumni are very much like I believe UCL to be – very well rounded. The network doesn’t just focus on one sector – it’s well spread and very well distinguished. 

“The UCL Hong Kong alumni group has a long history in China and has helped my summit to grow. Through the UCL Leadership team, I have now engaged with the Hatchery startup incubator at UCL Innovation and Enterprise. They have been a part of my summit, providing a platform and funding for startups. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of the network.”

Ryan is humble about his achievements, but offers his fellow alumni one piece of advice: “What has gotten me this far is that I don’t mind asking for help from people in higher places. By just being willing to reach out, take a chance and talk to people - asking for help and their ideas - it could be the start of something big.”

Ryan will be speaking at the economics and political science graduation ceremony taking place on July 1, 2019. Join Ryan and find your local alumni community at www.uclalumnicommunity.org.