Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

On David Cameron’s Visit to China

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David Cameron touched down in Beijing today, bringing with him Britain’s largest ever overseas trade and ministerial delegation. The 131-strong team will no doubt go all out in trying to achieve Cameron’s stated aim of making Britain China’s primary advocate in the EU.

Coming ahead of October’s visit by Boris Johnson and George Osborne, it heralds a major effort by the government to attract Chinese investment and cooperation with Britain. Since Cameron met with the Dalai Lama last year, Beijing has been noticeably cold with UK officials, a ploy often used to signal Beijing’s anger.

The EU is China’s largest trade partner, ahead of the US, and Cameron will be expected to talk up a free trade agreement between the EU and China in talks with China’s president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang.

Britain punches above its weight in China. Recognition of British brands and expertise is strong, and British companies are increasingly looking to expand their reach into China’s giant market. China’s GDP continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, growing around 40% between 2010 and 2012, basically adding the economic equivalent of India to its economy in two years.

Speaking to Stephen Phillips, Chief Executive of the China Britain Business Council (who is on the delegation) earlier this year, I learnt a lot about how British businesses are plugging into the developing economy of China. In all the big news and shocking numbers about China’s stupendous growth, perhaps it is forgotten that in some respects China is still a developing country.

China’s rural population numbers 656 million (the percentage of urban residents surpassed countryside dwellers in 2011). And daily expenditure levels for most of the population is still very low (I can quite easily eat out in China’s capital for all meals for less than five pounds every day).

Britain’s engineering and infrastructure businesses are looking to China’s emerging second-tier and third-tier cities to capitalize on infrastructure development. Healthcare and support for the growing elderly population is another opportunity. While on the higher end, public relations, fashion and product design are knowledge industries experiencing rapid evolution. Education remains one of Britain’s top exports.

Knowledge-led, high value industries are the UK’s forte and this is reflected in the list of Cameron’s delegates where engineering, education and finance are especially well represented. Brands such as Ted Baker and Marks and Spencer have sought to make their presence felt, although high street stalwarts like Topshop have been conspicuous by their absence considering H&M and Zara did so well in entrenching themselves so quickly.

Businesses and the individuals focused on developing trade concentrate on the vast opportunities China presents. But on the political side, commentators have voiced their disappointment over a seeming lack of moral authority, which once perhaps Britain may have had. Jonathan Mirsky, writing in the New York Review of Books, after Johnson and Osborne’s visit, said: “How gratifying it must have been to Chinese officials when Cameron recently said, “I have no plans to see the Dalai Lama”, a statement Osborne took care to repeat”.

Cameron and his advisors know just how important it is to develop Britain’s interests with the world’s second largest economy. If it feels like Britain is the junior partner, that is because it is, at least in thisĀ situation – the dismay expressed at the failure to highlight human rights and other issues is the liberal edge to the same sadness that pervades Britain’s sense of lost imperial glory. But it is right that people strive for their leaders to uphold principles of freedom and justice.

The United Kingdom’s moral authority on the global stage is being compromised for the sake of capitalism, a truth keenly understood by the ‘communist’ state of China.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 2, 2013 at 7:36 am

One Response

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  1. […] Cameron recently led a trade delegation (the biggest ever, numbering 131 people) to China. It received widespread media attention back in the UK. But in China, aside from some […]

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