China - less of an enigma than you might think.
China. A puzzle wrapped in an enigma surrounded by mystery ? ( As someone said once of something else.) Actually one of the changing realities is that more and more Chinese are travelling here so the opportunity to get some sort of direct insight what China really is thinking is actually increasing. As with almost all Chinese statistics the numbers in this area - and the rate of change - are pretty staggering
Twenty years ago there were some three million outbound visits by Chinese nationals - last year the figure was well over 60 million. Looking closer gives a bit more perspective - well over half these visits were either to Hong Kong or to Macau. A large proportion of the remainder are to Taiwan, South Korea or other neighbouring parts of East Asia. ( And its has to be acknowledged that through much of the '60s and '70s at least there was a sizeable uncounted outbound flow from China of those with no intention to return)
Chinese visitors to the UK have grown but do lag behind those for the rest of Western Europe though Government is trying to improve the visa application process in response to this. Over the last nine months I have made my own very modest contribution to this traffic helping to host visits by about twenty delegations to Birmingham and spent a couple of interesting hours this week with the most recent such group - some twenty visitors to Birmingham from a municipality close to Guangzhou . This one, fairly typically, comprised the mayor, some supporting City officials and group of business people .Most cities in the world would be dwarfed by Guangzhou with its population of 13 million but Beijiao itself is probably the size of Coventry - so, a tiny place in Chinese terms but a mid ranking City in Europe.
My audience listened encouragingly, politely applauded the phrases from my tiny stock of Mandarin ( I always imagine little thought bubbles floating above the patient Chinese at this point echoing Dr Johnson ' ... its not done well but one is surprised to hear it done all' ), the mayor asked some polite questions and they were on their way. Where to ? In this instance another day or so in England, then Germany, Switzerland and home to Guangdong province.
For many of my previous visitors their trip to the UK takes in the inevitable tourist hot spots - London, Oxford, Stratford, York and Edinburgh - and one would have to be a saint not to look to take advantage of tax free shopping and the opportunity to avoid Chinese domestic taxes that a jaunt into Europe ( or, more specifically, Bicester provides) . However these visits almost always have a serious component and a desire to learn something from western experience. The mayor's questions to me focused on some fundamental issues ' How do manage the development from a manufacturing to a post industrial city ? How do you ensure that the people have the skills that the new economy will require ? The new development that you envisage - how is it going to be financed ? To say the least - all pretty searching stuff.
But at the source of the questions - and a major stimulus for the delegations making their way regularly to this and a host of other cities across Europe- there is a clear sense appreciation that notwithstanding the transformation that has impacted in those twenty years ( and it as obvious in and around Beijiao as anywhere in China)- the challenge that the future presents them is even more daunting.
But what is the opportunity that this presents for the UK and for Birmingham and how can these official visits translate into serious business opportunity- here the challenge presented by the mystery/ puzzle/ enigma seem to loom large. The patient building of relations across language and other cultural differences requires times and persistence. But in fact at one level there's no mystery at all - and to use another glib expression - you don't need a crystal ball when you can read it in the book.
And the book in question is the '12th Five Year Plan of the People's Republic of China' - unlikely to make it to the Times best seller list on the strength of the title alone but for my new friend the Mayor of Baijaio, her officials and tens of millions of their counterparts across China, its sets out what is expected of them and how their achievement will be judged.
In English it only runs to some 60-odd pages and if you are looking to act on William Hague's exhortations to get on a place and go sell stuff - don't think of travelling without it if you are in-bound to China.