London’s Trafalgar Square on Chinese New Year day
Brecht is (or was) popular with Calcutta theatregoers. Apparently, Brontë is Beijing’s favourite. But talk of coal to Newcastle, it seemed the height of chutzpah for the Shanghai Ballet to present Jane Eyre in London until the weightless grace of the Chinese dancers at Wednesday’s spectacular opening night at the Coliseum convinced us this was value added to English arts.
Portobello Road’s Saturday morning antiques market, which I have been visiting regularly for more than half a century, produced another surprise. I thought my three-piece Chinese silver English-style tea service was unique. But there, lo and behold, were displayed passable imitations of my milk jug and sugar bowl though without the teapot. They were exorbitantly priced for hordes of Chinese shoppers merrily munching traditional English fish and chips in between caressing purchases and counting out thousands of pounds. The silver wasn’t the only example of chinoserie. Shape of things to come, Portobello Road suddenly flaunted a wealth of Chinese artifacts.
George Osborne, Britain’s equivalent of our finance minister, would see the goods and the buyers as “a vote of confidence in Britain as a place to invest and do business in”. That’s what he said when China bought into Thames Water, Britain’s largest water and sewage company serving 14 million people in greater London. Earlier, Hongkong-based Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest businessman, sunk $3.9 billion in a similar undertaking in north-east England. He had already snapped up swathes of British infrastructure. Economics being too important to be left to economists, Osborne is personally urging China to spend its $3.5 trillion foreign exchange reserves — the world’s biggest — in Britain. He thinks it essential for Britain’s recovery.
Five thousand miles away in Beijing, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s ambassador, must be watching carefully. If China does invest $160 billion in Andhra Pradesh, it will probably be as a result of his efforts. Around 270 representatives of Chinese companies attended Jaishankar’s India-China Investment Forum in February where a booklet in Mandarin, The Complete Guide to Investing in India, told potential investors all they should know about crucial sectors like infrastructure, automobiles, hospitality, power and energy. But it won’t be easy catching up with Britain. At one time, the queues collecting value added tax refund forms at fashionable West End stores all wore djellabas and keffiyehs. Then came slim Japanese in dark suits politely bowing their way to the VAT counter. Now the demeanour and spending of boisterous young Chinese reflect the lifestyle of the taizidang or princeling — as the children of party veterans are called — who rule China. Xi Jinping, the president, belongs to the milieu.
My friends in the City say the taizidang turn up their nose at any deal smaller than £5 billion or where the return is under 14 per cent. Even the China Investment Corporation’s 10 per cent share in Heathrow airport is small change. Now, they demand the lion’s share like the Dalian Wanda corporation paying £320 million for 92 per cent of equity in the yacht-making firm, Sunseeker. Wanda has also concluded a £720-million deal to build the “first Chinese luxury hotel overseas” in London’s Nine Elms regeneration area which will house the new American embassy. The hotel will “bring a touch of Chinese style to the centre of London” gushes Britain’s ambassador to China, Sebastian Wood. Lest Jaishankar be accused of demeaning diplomacy with commerce, Wood attended the press conference where the Sunseeker purchase was announced. Boris Johnson crows it’s a “cracking deal”.
Asked why he was buying a yacht company, Wanda’s owner, Wang Jianlin, China’s second richest man and the first Chinese citizen to own a private jet in addition to a $33-million Sunseeker, replied his conglomerate planned to build marinas in three Chinese cities. Each would need at least 10 yachts. “We figured it’s more worthwhile to buy a yacht company rather than buy 30 yachts,” he said. “Private yachts are a booming market in China.” China’s biggest car maker bought MG Cars in 2007. State-owned Bright Foods acquired a majority stake in Weetabix for £720 million in 2012.
As Jane Eyre flamboyantly shows, there’s more to the Anglo-Chinese romance than 500 Chinese companies in Britain. Part of Soho has sprouted gateways and pagodas to replace the original Chinatown, scruffy old Limehouse, in London’s East End. A gaudy new Chinatown also dominates the heart of Manchester where the solitary Chinese restaurant of the Fifties was suspected of serving a well-known cat food in its chop suey. With around 180,000 Chinese tourists, London must have taken a handsome cut of the $102 billion the Chinese spent on foreign travel last year. Bosideng is an elegant Chinese menswear store in London’s West End. A Chinese insurer is the proud owner of Lloyds of London’s heritage building designed by the architect of Centre Pompidou in Paris while another Chinese billionaire plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace which burnt down in 1936. The British want £5.28 million in what Asians would call blood money for the death of Neil Heywood, the businessman who was poisoned by the wife of a once high-flying, now disgraced politician, Bo Xilai. Bo must be rolling in the stuff, they say, since he owns a £2.25 million villa in the Riviera and his son has joined the Columbia Law School which charges £40,000 a year.
No one should be surprised if one of Britain’s royals is packed off on a stately sales tour to grab some of this wealth. Since Prince Philip and Prince Charles have blotted their copybook with snide remarks about the Chinese, it might have to be Queen Elizabeth herself who is nothing if not dedicated to her country’s welfare. India can’t claim such a glittering asset. Nor would anyone say of India, as a Chinese diplomat recently said, “The United Kingdom is the most open economy and also the most market-oriented.” But as Manmohan Singh put it at the start of his political career as finance minister, “We need to show the same pragmatism as China to drive the Indian economy.” India needs Chinese capital and expertise to increase the economy’s share of manufacturing from 16 to 25 per cent by 2022.
China needs India too. Rising wages (by as much as 20 per cent in the industrialized coastal provinces) are eroding the cost advantage that made China the workshop of the world. The Crystal Group — apparel suppliers for brands like Gap and Marks & Spencer — has only marginally increased its staff in China but more than tripled its workforce in Vietnam where overheads are still comparatively low. With an economy that depends on exporting inexpensive manufactured goods slowing down, China needs the compensating returns of investment in Indian manufacturing. Of course, China’s slowdown also offers India opportunities, but greater long-term gains lie in cooperation. The state being the primary Chinese investor, the reputation of its two main props — the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army — will be on the line. Neither would dare alienate an India that controls China’s national savings. Apart from Osborne’s comment about investment as a vote of confidence, Jaishankar’s strategy would give China a stake in India’s political stability and economic growth.
Wednesday’s hundreds of smartly dressed Chinese in the ornate red, white and gold London Coliseum recalled the sudden appearance of an unknown Chinese in mandarin robe and pillbox hat at Queen Victoria’s coronation. Afraid of offending a possible envoy of the Son of Heaven, the organizers seated him between the Archbishop of York and the Marquess of Salisbury. Inquiries next day showed he was the owner of a humble junk moored in the East End. The Chinese haven’t lost their capacity to surprise.