Edinburgh and Scotland's relationship with China must be 're-evaluated'
The potential loss of income from Chinese students and visitors has led to calls for Edinburgh and Scotland’s relationship with the country to be re-evaluated in a post-Covid world.
The Capital is home to an estimated 6,000 Chinese international students and is also consistently one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists.
The city was also on the forefront of Scotland’s charm offensive with China, most clearly demonstrated with the so-called ‘panda diplomacy’ years, embodied in the continued loan of Tian Tian and Yuan Guang to Edinburgh Zoo.
Edinburgh’s educational institutions also have a symbiotic relationship with China, with international students paying extremely high fees which in turn funds expansion of the universities.
All three of Edinburgh’s main universities, the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier and Heriot-Watt, have offices in China with Napier offering distance learning to almost 2,000 Chinese students.
Student housing across the Capital is also marketed towards predominantly international students with more money to burn, while an entire economy of Chinese and Asian shops, restaurants and tourist offerings cater for Chinese visitors while they are in Edinburgh.
The potential loss of all of those students could have a devastating impact on universities, with Edinburgh and Napier both announcing large cost cutting exercises and job losses partly due to the predicted decrease in the number of students from abroad.
Ellen MacRae, Edinburgh University Students’ Association president, said the full impact of Covid-19 is not known for the university, but said it would be “extremely disappointing” if revenue falling meant a worse student experience.
She said: We are yet to see what impact Covid-19 will have on the numbers of international students choosing to study at the University of Edinburgh. The University are taking a hybrid approach to teaching in semester one which will allow students to participate from anywhere in the world.
“Hopefully this will mean we don’t see a significant reduction in the number of international students joining the University.
“It would be extremely disappointing, if due to a fall in revenue, the University had to renege on its responsibilities to invest in student services, especially those for wellbeing and mental health, as these will be even more important in the current climate.
NUS Scotland president, Matt Crilly, echoed the concerns.
He said: “International students are part of the fabric of our communities and positively contribute immeasurably to Scottish society.
“The Scottish and UK governments, and our universities, must ensure that Scotland is a welcoming and inviting place to study and live, so that contribution is not lost.
“The enormous financial impact facing Scottish universities underscores just how reliant they have become on fee-paying students – from the rest of the UK, and outside of the EU.
“In the long-term we need a system that is built on sustainable public investment, not on student debt.
“As we move forward, students need to see both the UK and Scottish governments delivering a support package which provides financial stability and security at a time when both are lacking.”
Liberal Democrat MSP, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said it was “inevitable” that the tourism and education industries in Edinburgh would not be able to rely on Chinese tourism.
He said: “The reality is that Edinburgh's tourism industry and it's universities will not be able to lean on visitors from China for the foreseeable future.
“In 2018 Chinese tourists spent almost £50m in Scotland so there is the potential for serious losses.
“The Scottish Government need to get to work to deliver a targeted package to support our tourism and hospitality industries through this difficult time.
"I have also written to the First Minister to ask her to expedite the decision on the designation of ‘air-bridges’ to countries where we will be able welcome international visitors to Scotland without a quarantine order.
“These will only be introduced when it is safe to do so but the tourism and hospitality industries need clarity about when to expect overseas visitors once more."
However, following controversies with Chinese tech company Huawei’s involvement in constructing the UK’s 5G network, the lack of transparency around the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak, and the ongoing civil rights crisis in Hong Kong, some in Edinburgh have begun to question the city’s reliance on an economy that might not return post-Covid.
One leading academic, Dr Sarah Liu, said the city and Scotland must re-evaluate its relationship with China if it cares about human rights and democracy.
Dr Liu, an assistant professor in Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh University, said it was time for the city to balance economic benefit with the potential for indirectly backing human rights abuses.
“It is important for us to think about the fact that the Chinese communist party didn’t immediately release any information about Covid-19”, said Dr Liu. “That lack of transparency has really caused the entire world a lot of lost lives and a lot of economic loss.
“Times have changed since the China diplomacy of the noughties with panda diplomacy. China’s assertion of power has changed.
“If Scotland is interested in protecting human rights then we really need to think about how we can reaffirm that and re-evaluate our relationship.”
Dr Liu added that incidents including the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law, a draconian law which criminalises dissent and criticism of the Chinese communist regime, made the question even more pertinent.
She said: “What’s great about tourism in Edinburgh is that we get a lot of tourists from across the world, not just one single country.
“We should have realised by now that we must not put all our eggs in one basket and rely on tourists from one single country. Prague is a great example to follow if we want to think about how to preserve and support human rights, freedom, and democracy and attract tourists that aim to establish deep connections with the city.
“We need to focus on tourists that stay for more than a day or two and tourists who support local businesses, rather than tourists who transit to Edinburgh and book and travel with agencies from China.
“I see the benefits of being diplomatic or collaborating with China, but we need to ask whether the city can benefit from that and get economic gain.
“We really need to see if there has been economic gain and if there has been gain, we need to ask ourselves whether we want to support a regime which jails and kills people who dissent for economic gain.
“As a leading capital city and a leading tourist city, we really need to think about whether we want that sort of profit to come from a regime that doesn’t respect human rights because I think there are things that are more important than economic gain.”
Owen Kelly, the deputy director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute who sits on the advisory board of Edinburgh’s Confucius Institute, said the Capital is “fairly exposed” to any potential change in relationship between Scotland and China.
He said: “Concerns about political changes and their effects on China’s relationships with us are not new. Whatever happens there will continue to be relationships but the political context will change.
“One only has to look at the tourism industry to see all the effort to make it ‘China Ready’. People have made comparisons with Japanese tourism in the 80s/90s, but China is that on an even bigger scale and if that were to fall away for political choices, that would have a pretty significant impact and many places would have to reorient themselves to take account of that reality.
“The Chinese government has never pretended that it is anything other than nationalistic and China-first. It has never pretended that it wants to be a ‘western’ democracy. What has changed is that it has now become a lot more assertive internationally in terms of Hong Kong and in relations with other countries close by.”
Mr Kelly added that the impact on any reduction in the scale of the relationship with China will vary sector by sector, but said the most exposed industry was education.
He said: “The big exposure comes from all the universities because of the fee income they bring. Tourism and some manufacturing too. A potential reduction in students could take a few years, and if there is to be a reorientation, people should be thinking about what that means right now.
“People have assumed wrongly as we now see that by having greater economic relationships with China, that that would lead to the Chinese regime changing its world view about power and what it is for and what we are seeing now is that has not happened.
“Every western economy, and Edinburgh and the universities, are part of that much wider delusion that there was some natural inexorable direction of travel towards the same sorts of systems of democracy that we have and are used to in the west.
“Edinburgh is not at all unusual in being part of that misunderstanding of China.”
Rob Lang, head of marketing at Edinburgh Airport and the leading man behind the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group’s (ETAG) ‘China Ready’ campaign said that instead of withdrawing from relations with China, the Capital must be ready to welcome Chinese visitors back.
He said: “The Chinese market is a vital market for tourism in Edinburgh and it is something we will continue to develop. It is one that is growing, and you see the scale of the market and the opportunity is significant.
“You look at how it was growing exponentially before Covid hit and so we know it is a real opportunity. We know that they are very keen to come and visit Scotland and from that perspective it is still going to be there and it would be remiss of us not to encourage the development of that when the economic impact of Covid is going to be significant for the city and the country.
“We know that Chinese visitors do invest heavily in the economy by spending, and from a relatively small number we know they support the economy greater than other nationalities.”
Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport added: “We know that Edinburgh is the most visited city in UK outside of London for Chinese tourists and that is something we should look to build on because it’s a lucrative market for a number of reasons.
“Chinese tourists are a high spend market and obviously that brings its benefits, and those benefits can be country wide as they arrive into Edinburgh and travel to other areas of Scotland.
“It’s more than just tourism, though. We have shared cultural interests, Chinese investment in some of Scotland’s top firms, Chinese students studying at Scottish universities and potentially making Scotland their home.
“We should welcome the fact that one of the world’s biggest countries and economies holds Scotland and Edinburgh in such high regard.”
A spokesman for Edinburgh Napier said: “Edinburgh Napier has a longstanding commitment to providing UK Higher Education opportunities to students from China.
“We have a number of strategic partnerships with education institutions in China, and have been working closely with them during this exceptional period to minimise the disruption to students’ studies owing to the COVID19 global pandemic.”
A spokesman for Queen Margaret University added: “International students are a highly valued part of the QMU community, they contribute so much to the cultural diversity of the University – both inside and outside of the classroom.
“To date, QMU has only ever had a small number of Chinese students as part of our international student community, compared to other institutions, so any drop in number would not have a great impact on our finances or the makeup of our student population.”
A spokesman for Edinburgh University added: “Edinburgh is a culturally richer city, and the University a more successful institution, because of our ability to attract overseas students and staff. Our long-term goal is for this to remain the case.”
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Subscribe to the Edinburgh Evening News online and enjoy unlimited access to trusted, fact-checked news and sport from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Visit https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.