For my first business trip to China since November 2019, I inevitably had an ambitious and action-packed schedule: I was to visit seven cities in ten days at the end of March, to personally meet with colleagues, partners, and friends who had existed solely on a screen for over three years. Now back in my peaceful home in Cambridge, with a view of cherry blossoms, I reflect on what I saw, heard, and felt during my short but productive time in China.
PART ONE – CHENGDU, BEIJING & SHANGHAI
Chengdu: Becoming Cosmopolitan
To many people, the capital city of my home province Sichuan is associated with spicy food, the giant panda, and, as symbolised by tea house culture, a slow pace of life. The Chengdu plain is also known as the “Country of Heaven” and the “Land of Abundance” due to its traditional excellence in farming and agricultural produce. But there is a lot more to Chengdu than meets the eye. Although I used to regularly visit Chengdu before Covid, I was still surprised to hear that its population has grown to over 20 million (from 10 million in 2010), as it used to be only the four direct-administered municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing) that had such large populations. Chengdu also became the latest Chinese city with GDP exceeding 2 trillion yuan (ranked 7th in China) and hosts the world’s largest building in terms of floor area (New Century Global Centre). So, the question is: what has generated such high growth in Chengdu in recent years?
On a domestic flight in China back in the mid 2000’s, I remember reading a government announcement in a newspaper about developing Chengdu and its nearby regions. At the time, unprecedented policy and funding support was promised for the city as part of the Government’s plan to develop the West of China. Fast forward to 2023 and the city has undoubtedly lived up to the Government’s expectations. Chengdu is now the most important economic, financial, commercial, cultural, transport and communication centre in Southwest China. During my two days there, I met with leading local entrepreneurs, innovators, science & technology advisors, innovation commercialisation specialists, and educators. Many collaborative ideas came about and everyone was optimistic about the future.
Whilst all these entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, and people in similar areas of work are able to feel optimistic about their prospects, not every line of work has left its employees feeling this way. I took a cab (a Didi, Uber’s equivalent in China) to one of my meetings and the middle-aged female driver chatted to me about her life. She used to work for a manufacturing factory which had been shut since Covid due to a lack of orders. As a result of her age and skill set, the only job she could find was taxi driving. She said she earns a similar income now but has much less left in the bank as she has to cover accommodation and food expenses herself, all of which her former employer used to pay for.
One evening I took a stroll out of my hotel and, to my pleasant surprise, I stumbled onto the Tiexiangsi Temple Water Street – a new landmark in Chengdu Tianfu New District that is meant to demonstrate that the city is a combination of both Western and Chinese culture. But to me, Chengdu will always be a city of traditional Chinese beauty full of endless charm and modesty.
Beijing: the Forever Expanding Capital
With the spicy taste of Chengdu still on my tongue, I landed in Beijing Capital Airport ready to embark on the next stop of my tour. I stayed in a hotel which used to be regarded as far out of the city but the location, on the edge of the 3rd Ring Road, is now convenient and well-connected. The urban area of Beijing is continuously expanding and its new 7th Ring Road is an orbital road of about 1000km that encircles the city centre, but in fact lies predominantly in the neighbouring Hebei province.
I noticed that the usual Beijing traffic jams were back – symbolic of the level of economic activities that were going on. Travelling from the west to the east of the city takes at least an hour, so smart logistics planning is always essential for meeting scheduling. I managed to complete five meetings in west, central, and east Beijing over two days, as well as two business dinners, with a well-established Chinese intellectual property firm, an international tech transfer platform, local district government officials, education officials, science & technology policy makers, and early-stage tech investors.
The people in Beijing – particularly the taxi drivers – like to talk, and they care about what’s going on in the world, not just about the big events in China. For instance, someone asked me about why Britain follows America so closely in its attitude towards China. There is also a plethora of business executives in Beijing, since being within close proximity to the central government and ministries provides a great natural advantage and direct access to government updates, who are constantly discussing the latest political events and policy announcements.
The 14th National People’s Congress was completed in Beijing in early March, so many businesspeople were discussing the latest government restructuring of key state departments and debating the different outcomes these would have. For example, Beijing has a relatively new stock exchange, which is now adding momentum to list tech companies that have good potential but do not meet the criteria for listing in the main boards of Shanghai and Shenzhen. The raise to a high status of the Chinese stock market regulatory body is seen as the Government’s signal for further development of China’s capital markets.
I used to think Beijing was great for business and politics, but not for living in – at least, not for a southerner like me! One of the main reasons for this way of thinking was the bad air pollution, but this time around in Beijing, other than one day when there was a visible degree of air pollution, the other days were beautiful and clear.
I enjoyed fine dining at a Hangzhou restaurant in Wangfujing, but also got to enjoy a tasty breakfast in a small eatery across from my hotel, which consisted of traditional northern steam buns and read bean congee. In between my meetings, I even got my trousers shortened by the local tailors in the residential area next door. I did notice that hotel room service had not yet been resumed, despite the hotel being managed by a first-class international hotel chain. However, the hotel service on a whole was not in any way lacking: I was hugely impressed by the hotel electrician who came to inspect my mini fridge and, after deciding it was broken, carried a replacement all by herself into my room five minutes later. I was astounded, and delightfully reminded of Mao’s “Women Can Lift Half of the Sky”. Perhaps Beijing isn’t so bad a city to live in after all.
Shanghai: the Chinese City that Never Sleeps
Despite not usually being one for early mornings, I got up at 6am to catch an early flight to Shanghai so that I could fit in four meetings in central Shanghai and Pudong area on Friday afternoon. This plan was, however, highly dependent on Air China’s prompt and timely service. Fortunately, there were no delays and I arrived at my destination exactly on time. (One cannot take such service for granted, as there was a time in China, in fact only a few years ago, when almost no flights departed on time).
Visiting the British Centre in the busy Jing’an district of Shanghai is always an enjoyable experience and I was glad to return to this familiar place, where one of the only differences to my pre-covid trips was the visitors wearing masks. I held discussions with HMG export service officials at the British Consulate-General, and with their service delivery team as well, on how to enable more British SMEs to enter and expand in China.
Next, I dashed back to Pudong and made it just in time for my meeting with some local partners to discuss the prospect of working with large Chinese corporates looking to expand overseas via M&A in the UK and Western Europe, as well as greenfield investments into Central and Eastern Europe. We concluded that 2023 will see the return of Chinese overseas investment. I ended my evening with dinner with a girlfriend, a successful businessperson, and our Japanese sashimi was not made any less delicious by the mobile conference call interruptions from her engineering team: business and meals frequently go hand in hand in China.
The following day was a Saturday but, this being Shanghai, I had a productive half day of brainstorming with a group of tech venture builders, senior IP lawyers, and professionals who had travelled to Shanghai from various cities. We had a roundtable discussion on how to facilitate West-China collaboration in tech commercialisation, including the technicalities of an IP-based incubation model.
I had the pleasure of joining a tasty lunch gathering with a whole table of my old university classmates. Most of us had not met up for at least five years and I was very lucky that they had organised this meet-up during my short stay in Shanghai. After some pleasantries I asked how they had coped with the two-month lockdown last year. Their answers were, unsurprisingly, of various degrees of suffering. One of them had even broken her leg from falling down the stairs of a poorly lit building, which she had been forced to climb after management decided to close the lift during lockdowns.
But, to my surprise, everyone recounted their experiences in very matter-of-fact manners and no one seemed angry or depressed. There was an overall sense of wanting to forget the past few years and a determination to carry on and make up for the time lost. That evening I took the ferry to cross Huangpu river, the same journey I made in late 1980s as a student. What a difference in the night views! Shanghai, the city that never sleeps.
In my remaining four days in China, I toured four cities which form key parts of the Greater Bay Area (“GBA”) – the new and most dynamic economic region in China.
(To be continued in the next article)