• Matthew Grandage

What might the new "Golden Era" mean for SME exports? A view from China

This week and next I'm visiting businesses in four major China cities – Chengdu, Shanghai, Ningbo and Zhengzhou. Chengdu and Zhengzhou are both cities I've lived in previously, and it's great to be back again.

One thing I am keen to observe is how ordinary Chinese people see Sino-British relations right now, especially in the light of President Xi's recent trip to the UK.

Well, it's only two days into this trip but I've already noticed people using that term "a Golden Era" (not of this trip, of course).

When I teach "Hosting Chinese Delegations Well" seminars for British-based SMEs and other organisations, I emphasise the need to understand the visiting delegation's expectations, then i) exceed some of them, ii) meet as many as possible, and iii) deal with any that cannot be met in a diplomatic, face-saving way. The impression I get right now (on this visit) is that Chinese people feel that the UK hosted President Xi extremely well, and that their expectations were exceeded in surprising ways. Staying with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, pints of IPA in a Buckinghamshire pub, selfies with Sergio Aguero – it was a program designed with great insight and skill, and delivered with aplomb.

Xi and Cameron in pub

Which is all good news, because these things are being read by Chinese businesses as signals from the UK saying "we are committed to building a long-term friendship with you, and doing business together". Though our news headlines have focussed on massive incoming investments in nuclear energy and high speed rail, this "Golden Age" has real implications for UK SME exports to China too.

Yesterday afternoon I met up with senior Southwest China staff from British Chamber of Commerce and China Britain Business Council (CBBC). It was encouraging to hear that currently they are being approached by regional industrial associations who want to connect with OEMs in the UK. This evening I'll meet with the leaders of one such association – a regional chamber of commerce for the oil and gas sector, whose members range from large state-owned refiners to small- and medium-sized OEMs. The "region" in question is Sichuan province – home to 90 million people, as well as large (and growing) oil, gas and petrochemical industries. These connections are coming, at least in part, because Chinese businesses will always prefer to do work with trusted friends.

The relationship between China and the UK has been far from easy over past decades (the China Daily recently described it as "a rollercoaster of highs and lows"). Right now, however, there's a breakthrough happening – something is changing for the long term. The excellent hosting of President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan was both an vital agent of that breakthrough and a sign that is taking place.

Photo credit: South China Morning Post

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