Struan Stevenson: Eastern promise must be fulfilled by Scottish companies

David Cameron's official visit to China this week at the head of the biggest trade mission to the country in 200 years underlines the central importance of the Middle Kingdom to the modern world economy.

The meteoric rise of the People's Republic over the past 30 years has been almost without parallel in history. Its $5 trillion economy recently overtook Japan's as the world's second-largest and is 90-times bigger than when former leader Deng Xiaoping embraced free-market reforms in 1978.

As a result of this phenomenal growth, China now has a vast and growing middle class which is hungry for western goods and services. Scottish companies must make sure they don't miss out.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This year, while Britain and most of the rest of the developed world languishes on paltry growth rates of 1 or 2 per cent, China is forecasting a GDP rise of around 10 per cent.

The country's brimming confidence is very much in evidence when you visit. Recently, I travelled to Changchun, in the north-eastern province of Jilin, to address the World Emerging Industries Summit.

Just 15 years ago the Changchun economic and technological development zone (CETDZ) was a bare patch of land. Now the area is buzzing with Chinese and international companies who are investing billions to develop new manufacturing plants for everything from wind turbines to pharmaceuticals, electronics to train carriages, creating employment for thousands of people.

Changchun is like a metaphor for China as a whole and its embrace of high-tech industries will doubtless be replicated across the country. These higher-skilled industries will help to fuel higher wages and living standards.

That's where the opportunities for Scottish companies become apparent. Middle-class Chinese are increasingly demanding the goods and services to allow them to emulate the lifestyles of their Western counterparts.

One of the most notable Scottish success stories in meeting this demand has been the Scotch whisky industry, which saw its sales to China increase in value from just 1 million in 2000 to over 80m in 2009. And just last weekend we heard that, thanks to years of lobbying by the Scotch Whisky Association and support from the Scottish and UK governments, genuine Scotch in China will now have Geographic Indication (GI) of Origin protection.

With the whisky industry supporting more than 40,000 jobs in Scotland already, further development of the Chinese market could help to create more employment here.

But opportunities also exist for our life sciences, renewable energy and financial services sectors, in which Scotland is recognised as a world leader. Some 40 Scottish companies already have a presence in mainland China, including RBS, Standard Life, Aberdeen Asset Management and Balfour Beatty.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Of course, investing or doing business in China is no simple matter.Stories abound about the danger of agreements getting "lost in translation" thanks to the Chinese cultural habit of avoiding confrontation in business dealings so as not to lose face.

And that's before you've negotiated the mountains of red tape, corrupt officials and the risk of your product or intellectual property being plagiarised with impunity.

Fortunately, things are changing, in no small part due to the greater scrutiny placed on China following its acceptance into the WTO in 2001.

Scottish companies wishing to engage with China would do well to speak to the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC), which has an office in Glasgow and a senior official, Wendy Liu.

The CBBC has 11 offices scattered throughout China and offers a range of practical assistance which can help Scottish companies to turn opportunities into success.

In addition, organisations such as Scottish Development International and Global Scot are helping to foster links and encourage investment between the two nations.

By maximising the opportunities available, Scottish firms can ensure that, for them, China is a land full of eastern promise, not a Shangri-La forever beyond the horizon.

• Struan Stevenson, a Conservative MEP, has represented Scotland in the European Parliament since 1999.