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More chutzpah needed from Birmingham in China

More chutzpah needed from Birmingham in China

🕔10.Feb 2015

The region’s success in establishing an economic bridgehead in China will only be sustained if both public and private sectors play their different but vital roles, Sir Albert Bore told business leaders last week, writes Mike Loftus.

China – The world’s largest economy gave Sir Albert a second, brief but no doubt welcome opportunity to lift his eyes from the huge day-to-day pressures faced by the city council and scan the more distant horizon. The launch of the Snow Hill Master plan looking forward twenty years was followed next day by a debate on the city’s relations with China, recently revealed by the IMF to have overtaken the USA as the world’s largest economy.

At the event, promoted by the England China Business Forum (ECBF) and property management specialists Fleet Milne, Sir Albert underlined his own credentials in working with China stretching back over thirty years to twinning relations with industrial powerhouse Changchun. He highlighted the region’s current success in securing investment and jobs from Chinese investment here and the trade flows making the West Midlands the only part of the UK with a positive trade balance with China. He also emphasised the vital place that city-to-city relations plays in supporting economic partnership, with the commitment of top politicians in Guangzhou – another key sister city – to regular scheduled direct flights with Birmingham.

Dr Yeow Poon, chairman of ECBF, has spent the last two years based in South East Asia and spoke of the need to develop a full perspective on China’s long term plans and ambitions. He stressed the way in which, in the wake of economic success, the country is taking on a wider leadership role leading to even more dramatic, transforming investment across and beyond Asia. China is committing significant resources to the establishment of an Asian Development Bank to fund infrastructure and other development. The romance of the Silk Road – the historic trade route from the Far East to the Mediterranean – is being used to market the new connections. Through rail links from China into the heart of Europe to speed the movement of goods are already largely in place.

James Ng of JN Legal Consulting drew on his experience with clients across China for over a decade to underline the advantages in seeing this city and region through Chinese eyes. He pointed out that many of those eyes will be looking at Birmingham very specifically in only a few weeks when the Barclaycard Arena hosts the All England Badminton Championships, one of the sport’s most prestigious competitions which in all probability will again be dominated by players from China and the Far East. The event has massive media coverage and public interest there – and will continue to be held in Birmingham for the next six years. James questioned whether Birmingham fully exploits the opportunity provided by this kind of platform.

Anthony McCourt of Court Collaboration told the story of his own small company and its growing success identifying private Chinese investors eagerly looking for opportunities overseas. He felt that this came down – for a small company – to making the time honoured decision to go out into a new territory, build connections and trust and develop from there (not so different from the ancient Silk Road approach). Policy initiatives within China such as the free trade zone created in Shanghai, and being considered elsewhere, were making it more straightforward for Chinese investors to make legitimate investments overseas.

The ensuing discussion centred on looking at how Greater Birmingham might capitalise on the achievements there have been to date in what is a hugely competitive arena. There is a – perhaps rueful – acknowledgement that current success in exports sits on a quite narrow base of businesses making real inroads into the Chinese market.

Sir Albert stressed that the City Council would continue to play its part recognising that the role that government and local government played in economic relations in China and the way in which well managed civic relations can broker and sustain business relations. Marketing Birmingham’s brief on winning new investment continues to have a particular focus on China as a target market. He also noted that in other UK cities competing for Chinese investment, the private sector had stepped up to the mark in creating a collaborative approach to better engage and present their area’s opportunities to the Chinese market. Maybe there is fuller scope for that in Birmingham and the Midlands.

The Manchester China Forum – promoting Manchester’s offer to China – is heavily billed as being business-led but the real running (certainly the chairmanship) seems to sit with Manchester Airports Group which is majority-owned by the Greater Manchester local authorities. MCF is heavily engaged in new air route development to China and the Airport City Enterprise Zone. With characteristic Manchester chutzpah, rather more has been made of the modest involvement of a Chinese construction and development business in the Airport scheme than their investment might actually merit.

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