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Educating for the Future

by CBBC Staff
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Each year, over fifteen million babies are born in China. This means the number of children in the early years bracket alone is the same as the entire the population of the United Kingdom.

Another startling fact is the scale of trade already taking place between Europe and China – the trade between the two regions is greater than any other comparable trade flow; somewhat predictably Germany is on the front foot, with China its largest export market (the intensity of Germany’s investment in China is consistent with such activity).

One other noteworthy observation is the extraordinary appetite for new technologies on open display in virtually every large Chinese city. In short, a growing population, with a rapidly increasing consumer spending power and a future orientated attitude to progress, characterises the China of today.

And this China has a paced and managed plan for education. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – so often mistaken as being ‘just’ a modern silk road trade strategy is, in fact, also a policy architecture for education, health and other domestic policies. This does not mean all policy is trade friendly – some aspects of education are, essentially, protected for Chinese decision makers alone – but being aware of priorities and opportunities through public policy is hugely advantageous.

Two cultural issues should be taken into account, especially with education. Firstly, relationships are crucially important; business meetings and negotiations are best undertaken after trust is established and friendships forged. Second, the family is central to Chinese life and this extends to being reflected in the approach to business – partnerships and agreements are understood as family-like structures. The many festivals and celebrations are often opportunities to develop and strengthen associations.

When I was Chair of the Education Select Committee, I had a keen interest in international economics and politics and the exchange of ideas between China and the West. Having noted as a younger man the efforts to engage with China as early as Prime Minister Edward Heath’s visits in the 1970s, I have witnessed the relationship grow closer ever since – and with ever increasing intensity. There has been an improving atmosphere for developing trade links which continued throughout my time in the House of Commons. The frequency of delegations of various forms and levels of seniority increased throughout my time in Parliament (2010 to 2017) with several Chinese delegations during my tenure notably determined to learn more about the education system in the UK.

Indeed, Chinese firms in high-tech sectors – notably robotics and artificial intelligence – are interested in education for many reasons. In the short-term, the links are with research institutions and universities, especially in student exchanges (UK immigration policy has been an obvious sticking point) but there is also a keen awareness, for example, to understand how UK experience can create a learning environment where creativity and communications skills flourish. More public policy influenced inquiries are about the delivery of specific projects – increasing nursery provision is popular – and, unsurprisingly, leveraging additional investment.

Investment in education is, in the first instance, about providing learning opportunities for people and this usually manifests itself in people moving; with the typical direction of travel towards the UK. This is ‘exporting education’ in a most basic way and, as the Education Select Committee indicated in 2017, movement restrictions are, essentially, trade dampeners.

Increasingly, however, there is a massive market for building and running UK schools in China. The independent sector is doing exactly this and, by extension, training teachers, including Chinese nationals, is part of the package. One slightly tricky question is about the ‘transferability’ of trained teachers and qualifications, although the latter area is being increasingly answered by the ever-adaptable UK assessments industry. China is now also putting a spotlight on vocational and technical training as, indeed, are many other Asian countries.

With a global slowdown effectively underway and growth figures for most large economies rather lower than hoped for, China’s figure of six percent remains buoyant by comparison – even if there are justifiable doubts about forward growth. However, emerging economies – China is one – do tend to have more economic slack and, in any event, it should be remembered that over the previous two centuries the UK averaged a growth rate of just two percent. More worryingly for the UK (if not China), is the strengthening of regional trade links across Asia with Beijing very much in the driving seat.

Opportunities in Chinese education are numerous. To seize them, UK investors must acquaint themselves with the prevailing policies and delivery mechanisms while, simultaneously, pushing forward with new ideas that appeal to an economy and society very much geared to modern solutions but still firmly rooted in cultural traditions, all underpinned by a sophisticated institutional memory.

Neil Carmichael is a senior adviser at communications agency PLMR, CEO of UCEC and Adviser to FN Robotics. He is a former member of the British Parliament, Chair of the Education Select Committee and a frequent visitor to China.

Why did you decide to go down the FCO path?

I was always interested in international affairs, even as a young school boy. I remember debating nuclear deterrence in class when I was 12. Then I was lucky enough at Tonbridge School in Kent to have a master, Mike Bushby, who ran something called the China option, which I took. We were boys aged 15, and he told us that in our lifetimes, China would rise once again to be a great power. I wrote to the Chinese Embassy, and the Chinese Ambassador at the time [in about 1970] sent me a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book – an original, in English.

I knew I could have been an investment banker or a barrister but my first preference was the Foreign Office and I was lucky enough to pass the exams. On joining, you were tested for your aptitude to learn hard languages and I was told that I could choose between learning Chinese, Japanese or Arabic; out of vanity and ambition I chose Arabic because I thought I could be ambassador in more countries but if I learnt Chinese I would only have a choice of one.

With hindsight, I sometimes think I made a mistake because I think China and Chinese are endlessly fascinating. Ironically, precisely because I wasn’t a Sinologist, in 1994 I was chosen to be the Head of the Hong Kong Department in the Foreign Office, in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong. Chris Patten (then Governor of Hong Kong) didn’t like what he called “Sino-logical claptrap” and so didn’t want a Sinologist as head of the Hong Kong Department. But I actually became more Sinophile than a Sinologist.

With the turmoil we are seeing in the region today, could Britain have done things differently with Hong Kong?

In my personal view mistakes were made in 1992 in terms of forcing through a package that wasn’t sustainable. It was all taken down at the stroke of midnight in June 1997; a wiser course would have been to have a more graduated approach that would have lasted through the transition. I think we stoked up expectations that could not be fulfilled.

I flew out of Kai Tak airport on 2 July 1997 not thinking I’d be going back, so I was absolutely thrilled to be offered a job working for HSBC, which often takes me to the Mainland and Hong Kong.

For me, the eye opener was going to China in December 2013, for the first time since 1997, with David Cameron on his big visit. The changes went far beyond just what China had done in terms of infrastructure.

They had been quite incredible years. The roads, the railways, the airports, the housing – the infrastructure had changed, but above all, hundreds of millions of people had been lifted out of poverty, given a better life, and in many cases educated to standards that are the envy of the West. Here one saw a great power, as Mike Bushby had told me about all those years ago, that had finally risen, resuming its rightful place in the world.

So, when it was suggested a couple of years ago that I might like to succeed Lord Sassoon as Chair of the China-Britain Business Council, I was absolutely thrilled. I’ve got a lot to learn about China and have been doing a crash course in basic Mandarin.

With the turmoil we are seeing in the region today, could Britain have done things differently with Hong Kong?

In my personal view mistakes were made in 1992 in terms of forcing through a package that wasn’t sustainable. It was all taken down at the stroke of midnight in June 1997; a wiser course would have been to have a more graduated approach that would have lasted through the transition. I think we stoked up expectations that could not be fulfilled.

I flew out of Kai Tak airport on 2 July 1997 not thinking I’d be going back, so I was absolutely thrilled to be offered a job working for HSBC, which often takes me to the Mainland and Hong Kong.

For me, the eye opener was going to China in December 2013, for the first time since 1997, with David Cameron on his big visit. The changes went far beyond just what China had done in terms of infrastructure.

They had been quite incredible years. The roads, the railways, the airports, the housing – the infrastructure had changed, but above all, hundreds of millions of people had been lifted out of poverty, given a better life, and in many cases educated to standards that are the envy of the West. Here one saw a great power, as Mike Bushby had told me about all those years ago, that had finally risen, resuming its rightful place in the world.

So, when it was suggested a couple of years ago that I might like to succeed Lord Sassoon as Chair of the China-Britain Business Council, I was absolutely thrilled. I’ve got a lot to learn about China and have been doing a crash course in basic Mandarin.

What would you like to see CBBC do?

I want the China-Britain Business Council, in as apolitical a way as possible, to act as an advocate for economic and commercial engagement between the United Kingdom and China because I think it’s overwhelmingly in both countries’ interest. The view of some is that the West should de-couple from China is utterly crazy. In fact, it’s not only crazy, it’s dangerous. What the Chinese call the win-win way forward is for both sides to come together in economic, commercial and investment relationships that benefit everyone.

How will your career as a diplomat help in your new role?

I think part of it is about persuading business, but a lot will be about persuading politicians to let business be business; let businessmen get on with trading. And with Brexit in prospect, Britain’s relationship with China becomes even more important. We need to understand that Britain cannot afford, and cannot afford to be forced – as some in America would like – to choose between the US and China. So I want to build up the capacity of the China-Britain Business Council to act as a quiet, evidence-based, advocate which supports the relationship. That should be self-evident common sense.

Is there always the ability for the UK or any nation to trade without politics being heavily involved?

Not without discussion or awareness of politics. My other job is to connect HSBC with the world of politics and public policy in so far as it affects the bank. You can’t operate a business in a total vacuum; equally it’s dangerous when politicians start to interfere with trade or disrupt trade for political ends as we have seen with tariffs being imposed and the creation of a lose-lose situation. Americans are poorer. Chinese are poorer. Tensions are higher. It’s very difficult to see what anyone gains from it.

Is there a fear that other countries might also be forced to join in this trade dispute?

Well I hope not. I have seen very little sign of it so far but America is pressuring countries not to use Chinese technology and I don’t think that’s really for security reasons in any rational sense. Instead, it’s more to do with economic competition and China having a world-beating technological capability that, aside from two Scandinavian companies, the West in general, and certainly America, can’t match.

What do you see as China’s future role in the world?

No country has an entirely smooth passage through history so I am sure there will be bumps in China’s road, but it has now reached a stage of economic, intellectual and technological development that will see it will play a very powerful role in global geo-economics – in fact, I think it is already playing this role and I don’t see that being reversed any time soon. I do see a China that is quite prudent; it’s not an acquisitive power in terms of real estate, whilst it is obviously anxious to secure access to the raw materials and the natural resources that it needs.

Which is what the fears have been over the Belt and Road Initiative…

Which are fears of soft power gains. But I prefer to see the Belt and Road as something from which everyone will gain and which will provide the infrastructure that Eurasia and beyond desperately needs. Again, all boats float on a rising tide; and this is a rising tide of connectivity, prosperity and reduced trade friction.

Therefore, do you think China’s standing in the world has risen – has the image of China changed and is it now a place where people are wanting to go to study and live?

It has. People are beginning to understand and be interested in the country. But then China also has a sort of curiosity – a thirst for knowledge and learning – which I often wish we shared. There are two hundred thousand Chinese students at universities in Britain – that’s a great tribute to the quality of higher education in this country. And a very important foundation for future friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

With the current turbulence in the UK Government are we able to fully concentrate on China?

Not fully, but Asia and China are where the future lies and I want Britain to be part of that future. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in the relationship with China. We’re not doing it for China’s sake, we’re not doing it for its own sake, we’re doing it for ourselves because it’s in our interest; whilst others will also benefit, the primary motive is our own self-interest.

You’ve spent your career somehow being at the centre of things during the most exciting periods of history. Now you’ll be spending more time working on China can we expect China to be in the news a lot more?

Well, we’re in a period, I’m afraid, of rising tension between the United States and China. I very much hope that the United Kingdom, with the support and advocacy of the China-Britain Business Council, will continue to develop the Golden Era of good relations with China whilst, at the same time, continuing our very good relationship with the United States. That, above all, is where we want to be and we should resist being forced to choose. It’s a relationship with the world’s two greatest economies, one of which is likely in the next few years to overtake the other in size.

Do you have specific goals at CBBC?

I want CBBC to offer British companies what they really need, which is the advocacy of a powerful body. One that provides evidence and argument for why this relationship is so important to both countries, and why it is so overwhelmingly in our common interest.

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