In October the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited China. The UK was on full charm offensive for the weeks leading up to and after the visit. Not to be outdone, Alex Salmond (Scotland’s First Minister) swept into Beijing for three days of meetings.
Just one year ago the relationship couldn’t have been colder.
Why is China so important to the UK, and does the UK really matter to China? Is the relationship asymmetrical, or can both sides benefit from closer ties and deeper economic links?
Welcome investment from China
There were several headline grabbing deals struck during Osborne’s visit. Following the appointment of a Sino-French consortium to build the UK’s next generation nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the vocal objection to Chinese majority investment in nuclear power was lifted; Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) signed a deal to invest $1.3B in Manchester Airport City; and there was an increase in the value of renminbi (RMB ) trading in the City of London: the only international RMB banking centre other than Hong Kong.
So where do the opportunities lie for future co-operation between UK and China? I think there are two ways of looking at this.
A win-win situation
Firstly from a Chinese perspective, the UK is a key market for their products and a good location for investing cash (and they have plenty). London has benefited from the Dalian Wanda Group’s acquisition of the Nine Elms site, and Advanced Business Park’s (APB) investment in the Royal Albert Dock. Manchester has also gained from Chinese investors Gingko Tree’s purchase of 49% of the impressive new BREEAM Outstanding Co-operative Group's HQ ; these are all good examples of Chinese outward investment to the UK.
Secondly, from a UK perspective, China remains a huge market. Careful design that minimises materials usage, restores damaged environments, reduces pollution and that places people and the environment at its heart is in increasing demand, and China can learn much from the UK. However, UK designers need to learn to work at China’s fast pace, using the huge resources available in China’s skilled local design institutes, and partnering with them to develop resilient, low carbon infrastructure. The UK will then be well placed to generate 10-20 years of work for UK designers. But the UK has to engage, not just smash and grab.
Embracing the new generation of designers and creatives
Recently I visited the offices of Turenscape, the landscape architecture practice founded by Kongjian Yu. The practice now employs several hundred people, in partnership with Peking University, and is increasingly looking outside China, from Russia to Australia, for new challenges. Their work is inspiring because it’s truly imaginative: sensitive to the natural environment, human in scale and generous in the provision of space, water and planting. If the Chinese economy is to become more open to UK designers, then the UK has to open up a little and welcome the involvement of Chinese designers like these in their own backyard.
The challenge for UK professionals is learning how to engage with China. Not as arrogant experts come to tell them how to do things, and not as desperate hunters, attempting to cash-in on China’s economic success. Instead the UK, in a spirit of genuine intellectual enquiry and knowledge sharing, needs to learn to start working with China as the intellectual equal it truly is. We have a lot to learn!