China: Investment into the United KingdomMay 7, 2014
Question for Short Debate asked by Lord Wei:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recommendations of the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on East Asian Business on foreign investment from China into the United Kingdom.”
My Lords, I am most grateful to have been granted time for us to debate what I believe is a crucial inflection point both in the UK’s relationship with China and in China’s own outward investment story. I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for East Asian Business and as a director for the Manchester-China Forum. I also declare a number of other relevant personal and public roles and interests which are outlined in the Lords register.
In particular, I would like to highlight through this debate the recent publication of a report commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for East Asian Business and conducted independently by Roland Berger entitled the Independent Review of Chinese Foreign Direct Investment. I hope that this report will help inform and stimulate this debate, and the debate that we as a society and country need to have as Chinese firms over the coming years dramatically increase their investments internationally, and in the process become a more important feature of economies such as ours.
In many ways there has always been investment and trade from and with China and the Chinese into the UK, whether in financial or non-financial ways, with waves of Chinese immigrants over the years putting in their time, energy and capital to help build and rebuild this country in the run-up to and after the two world wars. Think of the catering industry and the supply chains that feed it, and then think about the recent manufacturing story as UK firms worked with Chinese partners to lower their costs and globalise their supply chains. And then think about more recently as newly affluent and increasingly aspirational Chinese people have come to the UK to invest in a variety of financial assets, from property to stocks and bonds, arts and antiques, and luxury items.
During this period and in particular with the liberalisation of trade within China and encouragement of state and private enterprises to invest abroad, outbound FDI has accelerated, creating a huge opportunity for countries such as ours. The APPG report highlighted a number of scenarios, from today’s relatively low investment base to seeing the UK capturing between 3% and 5% percent of China’s future annual global outbound foreign direct investment, which alone would create between 48,000 and 75,000 direct jobs by 2020 in a median and optimistic scenario. The drivers of such investment include a competitive tax regime, the City of London as a future hub for offshore renminbi trading, high educational quality at different stages, our world-class industry sectors, and our openness as a country to FDI in areas as diverse as manufacturing, infrastructure and finance.
The Government in particular have done a significant amount to enhance Britain’s attractiveness to such investment. The most visible expression of this includes the various ministerial visits last year, as well as changes to the visa process to make it easier for tourists and business leaders to come, shop and do business here. Behind the scenes I know that much good work is carried out by UKTI, the China-Britain Business Council, and regionally to encourage Chinese people to visit and invest on both the large and the small scale. This has produced fruit with recent announcements such as the Royal Docks development by ABP, the investment into Manchester’s Airport City being spearheaded by Beijing Construction Engineering Group, and the significant investment in R&D and higher education by telecoms firms such as Huawei, a supporter of the APPG. In addition, we have in recent years witnessed major welcome investments into nuclear power, water utilities, engineering firms and even breakfast cereals. More such investments are in the pipeline, evidenced by recent positive visits to the UK by organisations such as the China Entrepreneur Club, whose member businesses represent a significant proportion of private enterprise turnover in China. Indeed, the chair of McKinsey & Company Asia recently wrote that 2014 could be the biggest year for Chinese foreign direct investment into the UK, and the APPG report highlights the continuing strong upward trend we are likely to see in the wake of these first major investments.
Now is a crucial time when major global Chinese firms are deciding where to locate their headquarters as they start to look beyond the borders of Greater China, and the UK can undoubtedly benefit from this influx so long as we remain an attractive place to invest and do business in. However, we must remember that the benchmark should not be how much such investment is growing in absolute terms, but how we are doing in capturing a share of this investment globally as compared to our competitor nations in Europe and around the world.
While we have a lot to be thankful for and to congratulate ourselves on as a country, the APPG report highlights a number of areas where we could do even better, not just to continue to boost our share of Chinese global FDI, but to ensure that there is balance and diversity in the investment from China geographically, by sector and, indeed, by size. The report highlights that as Chinese firms decide where to locate their headquarters, more could be done to address the issue of hiring talent. It is all very well to enable the chairperson to locate to the UK, but headquarters need to have top teams, and if you are relocating part of your top management from China to help establish operations here in Europe, you will want to do so in countries that make that possible. Currently, there are difficulties for firms looking to bring in experienced Mandarin speakers versed in their own corporate culture. Other countries in Europe and elsewhere often even help to negotiate visas for top management at the point when the decision about which country to locate to is being made.
We need to operate on a level playing field globally with other nations, particularly Germany and others in Europe who have the added advantage of being in the Schengen zone. The need for business management visas, which could be addressed if we redesigned our system more around the skills we need as a country, ought to be addressed alongside the issue of the removal of post-study work visas. In my view, the system ought to be relaxed for countries in the emerging world that we want to trade with more, such as China, in order to provide our local firms with Mandarin-speaking, China-savvy talent that will help them grow, as well as supporting firms which are interested in locating their headquarters here.
Another area highlighted in the report is the need for more FDI to be attracted into areas within and beyond London and for resources to help diversify agency support so that it is not carried out only centrally, but also regionally. With the recent focus of UKTI effort around strategic sectors, which fits with the report’s recommendation for greater sector expertise in our national approach to attracting foreign Chinese investment, there is a real opportunity for cities and localities to utilise their local knowledge and networks and help small and medium-sized enterprises to connect with China by receiving Chinese investment. It would be interesting to see what the Government can do to diversify and attract more funding into this area so that the north and west of the country and areas outside London, as well as poorer areas of London, can benefit from the influx of Chinese funds.
The report also contains a number of recommendations and observations that highlight the importance of the cultural and even linguistic sensitivity needed for us to continue and grow our trade links with China and to attract further Chinese investment, from bringing in Chinese language-translated tax information, just as we have brought in Chinese language visa application forms, to encouraging commissioners of public tenders to be aware of the sometimes lengthy decision processes in China for outbound investors, which can take a year or more for investments of more than $1 billion, to simply understanding China’s regular five-year plans and how they affect priorities for investment at the level of firms and sovereign wealth funds. Here there is a role for both public and private intermediaries to be supported in their efforts to help bridge the cultural and linguistic divide. Intermediaries struggle at times, particularly in making medium-sized deals happen, because the timelines for facilitating an investment and ultimately getting paid for their work can be lengthy. This is important because while billion-dollar deals benefit the economy and help us hit our quotas, small and medium-sized firms, as we know, employ more people and have the potential to create more jobs.
What is the Government’s response to the recommendations in the APPG report, and how do they intend to address the visa, regional and intermediary-support challenges that it highlights, so that we can continue to compete with countries such as Germany and others and bring the benefits that come with increased Chinese investment to more industries and to firms of different sizes and geographies?
The final point I wish to make is to emphasise the importance of relationships. For 50 or more years, we as a country have benefited greatly from our alliances with Europe and America, with whom we have shared cultural and linguistic histories. Businesses here in the UK have traded with, invested in and received investment from partners across the English-speaking world and the continent for many decades. Relationship has been key top this, as well as proximity and opportunity. With the re-emergence of China economically on the world stage, it is relationships that are going to be key, not least because, perhaps more than most places in the world, they form the bedrock of business culture. To receive productive, successful investment from China and to ensure it creates local jobs and growth for Britain and British firms requires an understanding of the Chinese mindset, its culture, its priorities and its people, and of how Chinese firms are having to learn to adapt to deal with our market, our legal system and even our media.
To this end, I want to ask my noble friend the Minister how as a country we plan to do more to engage the local Chinese British diaspora and visiting Chinese students in the UK—as well as more British students and graduates as they learn Mandarin and gain relevant experience in China—so that they can assist our efforts in both countries to facilitate, attract and make the most of increased Chinese foreign investment in the years to come. Beyond that, how can we work together to encourage our towns and cities to look east to create the right climate for Chinese FDI? Finally, I want to ask how we can get our small businesses in particular to feel more comfortable with trading and receiving investment from Chinese investors, which can then be a potential spring-board for them to expand their exports to other parts of the world, not just back to China itself.
The Chinese economy is going to remain a driver of the global economy, and over time of our economy, for many years to come. At this pivotal moment, let us do all we can to encourage relationships to be built up and capital to be invested so that British businesses, industries, and sectors can benefit from this growing and welcome trend. Let us ensure that at every level, not just here in London and in central government, everyone can play a part in helping to make this much needed investment work for the benefit of all.