IPT Visit to Shaghai - House Magazine

Diary account of Peter's visit to Shaghai with the Industry and Parliament Trust.

Tuesday 20th May 2008

Off to Shanghai with the Industry and Parliament Trust and nine colleagues. We'll never stop the press sneering at MPs when they travel, but simply reading The Economist just isn't enough to understand what's happening in the world. At least this visit is at no expense to the taxpayer. It was supposed to happen last October, but the election that never was intervened. With a marvellous display of perseverance, the Trust has put together roughly the same group of MPs it had planned to take seven months ago to see how British business is doing in China's most vibrant city. Now here we are checking in to our Virgin flight at Heathrow. I wonder why it is our joint leaders - Bill Olner and Ben Chapman suddenly prefer to be known as William and Benjamin - but I suppose no one wants to play Little Weed to their Flower Pot Men.

Wednesday 21st May

Touchdown in Shanghai and a country of sadness; flags at half-mast on the third day of official mourning for the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan province - most recent estimate 40,000 dead. With great sensitivity Ben Chapman leads the group in a formal signing of the book of condolence. Our official programme begins well with comprehensive briefings from the British Consul General and her team and then with the Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Peoples' Congress. This is a city with an economy growing at 13 per cent, year in, year out. It certainly looks very different and even more confident than on my last visit seven years ago. My day is made for me by one senior Chinese official who tells me I am a dead ringer for Hugh Grant. I bet no one has ever told Grant that he's the spitting image of Peter Luff.

Thursday 22nd May

My morning starts badly. Chelsea is defeated in a penalty shoot out in Moscow - I thought the "home" advantage would see them through! All of us are on parade punctually to go to se GKN's China operation - MPs can certainly deal with jet lag. It was great to see a Worcestershire company doing so well in China, making components for cars exclusively for the domestic Chinese market. The factory gives us a taste of the high quality, motivated work force in modern China. New laws to boost consumption mean they are all now forced to take their holidays - a massive five days a year for new employees - whether they want to or not. We should be very afraid of what China can yet do - we haven't seen the half of it so far. On to PriceWaterhouseCoopers for a series of detailed and fascinating presentations on the economy. One fact puzzles me - if two thirds of the population is still the rural poor, earning on average less than US$400 a year, how can TV penetration be at 96%?

Friday 23rd May

More grim news in the "Shanghai Daily" as the earthquake toll rises to 51,000. The mourning, though, is over and the Olympic Torch is due in town. This makes our late departure from the hotel (because one of us overslept) a bit of a problem - the roads are even worse than normal. Some good news for the four Conservatives reaches us on the coach thanks to the miracles of Mark Prisk's BlackBerry - Crewe and Nantwich. We promise not to gloat, but Graham Allen's mischievous suggestion that the result was well below our expectations means we break our promise. BP China give an impressive account of their collaboration with Chinese academics to develop clean energy technologies. The scale of China's scientific expertise and ambition is more than a little frightening. On to Arup who are literally building the new China. The presentation on the Dong-Tan Eco City is invaluable – and also informs my campaign against the 'eco-town' proposed for my constituency. The scale of China's construction activity is breathtaking. They will need the equivalent of 66 new Shanghais by 2020 and they will build the equivalent of the whole USA in the next seven years. Makes our house building targets in the UK look rather modest, to say the least, but don't tell Caroline Flint I said so. Given a choice of going to the Shanghai Museum or to Cloud Nine (the highest bar in Shanghai) with Bill Olner, I opt for culture - what a great museum.

Saturday 24th May

An occupational hazard of being Chairman of the Business and Enterprise Select Committee is frequent visits to factories and special economic zones, so I am not relishing our visit today to the Suzhou Industrial Park, some 50 miles outside Shanghai. But I am wrong. The road from Shanghai shows in dramatic fashion the full scale of China's development - and the huge and brilliantly planned park itself is a revelation. This is not a country just bashing out cheap manufactured goods. It is a country of immense enterprise and ability that is achieving huge progress in next to no time - and moving rapidly up the value chain too. The new city being built around the park's factories, begun only 14 years ago, is now home to over 500,000 people and will soon be bigger than Birmingham. And local ambitions are huge as the spectacular city plan model shows. Wake up Britain! It was good to see Liverpool University here developing strong HE links with the area. There is also time for a hurried visit to the Humble Administrator's Garden, a UNESCO heritage site. We nearly lose Adam Holloway when we move on to the spectacular Suzhou Museum, but his military training stands him in good stead and he manages to find the coach before we abandon him.

Sunday 25th May

With the official earthquake toll now at a little over 60,000 and projections of over 80,000, it's a little difficult to read the morning papers and then plan a day off. But this is the one free day and needs must. Retail therapy took up the morning. Most of the team followed the estimable Tim Mathieson, an ex-pat with Willis, the insurance group, who took us to an excellent indoor market where jewellery, designer bags and far-from-genuine watches and pens proliferated. I opt out of the evening river trip and indulge my passion and go to the circus. It proves to be a metaphor for modern China; an idea invented in England, now undervalued in its homeland, but perfected and updated in China. Shanghai Circus World is a purpose-built 2,000 seat auditorium, with state-of-the-art technology. The complete lack of safety apparatus makes the aerial acts really rather alarming. The show ends with a phenomenal eight man motorbike team in a 35 foot diameter steel ball riding round at increasing speed and impossibly close to each other. Modernity in a classic setting - skilful and perfect, and taking some real risks to succeed. Yes, this is the China we do not yet properly appreciate in the UK.

Monday 26th May

The last day of our programme proves just as surprising as anything we have seen so far. The British Council has put together a panel - Dulwich College Shanghai (a franchised school, part of a growing international network), the Sino-British College (a partnership of nine UK universities and one in Shanghai) and the University of Nottingham Ningbo (delivering Nottingham degrees locally in co-operation with Ningbo University). Here are UK educational institutions using innovative delivery mechanisms to develop global brands. The meeting takes place at Dulwich College, a true international school with the children of American, Asian and European ex-pats. The phenomenally fast growth of the school since the opening of its Kindergarten in 2003, illustrates the opportunities for teachers to work internationally - they are already in big demand and Fraser White, Executive Chairman of the school, tells me hundreds more international schools will open worldwide in the next 5years, and they will all want British teachers. Now there's an exciting career, teaching the children of the world's most enterprising people! Our last meting, on risk with Marsh, is a reminder of the different problems of doing business with a country like China (the earthquake is the most recent example) and the opportunity to grow insurance business in this market.

Tuesday 27th May

Waiting for the return flight to London I think back over the week. I find it difficult to comprehend what we have seen in the last seven days. Even the new airport - which makes T5 look rather modest - reminds me of the breathtaking scale and pace of development in modern China. What does the UK really have to offer this supremely confident country? How many British "brands" have real clout here? It's an eclectic list that includes Manchester United, Oxford and Cambridge universities, Scotch, the Royal Family, the BBC, London, Burberry, Rolls Royce and Bentley cars (OK, they may be owned by the Germans now, but they still count) and, to judge by the number of photos of him I've seen, Tony Blair. How do we respond to the challenge? I fear the clerk of the Business and Enterprise committee will be getting some ideas from me next week for new enquiries! Thank you Industry and Parliament Trust, and thank you Sarah Hutchinson and Sally Muggeridge - it's been a stimulating if rather intimidating week.

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