China takes a dim view of British exports

Asked to name some British-made products, Chen Dongming, a researcher at the China Religious Research Institute, pondered for a while. "Scotch whisky and British Airways," he suggested. "British products are not as popular as the Japanese or American stuff. But if you ask me about British poets and dramatists, I can name a lot," he added.

As the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, left Peking for Shanghai yesterday, leading more than 270 British businessmen on the next stage of his trade mission, the consciousness of the ordinary Chinese shopper about British products and companies in China left some room for improvement. All the Chinese could name Wall's, whose Cornettos have been selling well for two years. But everyone thought the company was American.

A barber shop owner named Rothmans cigarettes, whisky and Rolls Royce. He added: "On television, in the British films, I saw that the British chinaware is quite beautiful. But there are not many British products in the Chinese market. Maybe that is because British businessmen are not interested in the Chinese market, or they are not as competitive as the Japanese, American or French businessmen."

Mr Heseltine, wrapping up the first hectic leg of his mission, would disagree. As he has repeatedly stressed this week, Britain remains by far the biggest European direct investor in China with cumulative investment totalling $2.2bn (pounds 1.4bn) by the end of last year. Less impressive is the trade performance; in 1995, Britain's trade deficit with China widened as UK exports slipped 2.4 per cent to pounds 824m.

The Chinese market presented "incredible potential" for British businesses, and British companies were well-poised to take a fair share of that business, Mr Heseltine said yesterday, describing China as "an immensely sophisticated country in the development of its policies". The only thing missing in the presentation was anything that resembled a new big contract. The largest signing so far during the mission has been a $80m pesticides joint venture by Zeneca.

Overall, however, Sino-British relations appeared this week to pass through a staging post. "Diplomatic relations between China and Britain have recovered from disputes over Hong Kong's future," pronounced the official China Daily. And the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, who met Mr Heseltine on Tuesday, said bilateral relations were expected to "take a big step forward", especially business relations.

The question yesterday was, at what price? Mr Heseltine was on the defensive about why such a senior politician was leading a trade mission, and whether it would not be better for him to concentrate on politics, given the seemingly intractable difficulties in safeguarding future political freedoms in Hong Kong.

"The idea that you can stand back as a minister in a government and not support your companies would display a degree of naivete which would be absent in every other country in the world," he said. "The dialogue which takes place here about major contracts takes place with the government of China. The whole machinery about approvals of decision-making is a political decision-making process."

Nevertheless, subjects such as human rights and the disagreements over Hong Kong have so far been given a much lower billing than business, and the Deputy Prime Minister admitted "the major focus has been on commercial matters".

There was a time when any senior foreign government official visiting China would make a point of stressing how the question of human rights had been raised with Chinese leaders. Yesterday, Mr Heseltine did not even mention raising human rights issues with Mr Li, despite the violent crackdown on photographs of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Asked earlier in the week if he would raise Tibet, he said: "I have private conversations with the leaders of the Chinese government, and I will maintain that confidentiality." British officials were not even allowed to confirm whether or not human rights had been raised in any form with Mr Li.

Mr Heseltine was similarly unforthcoming on discussions about Hong Kong and China's plans to scrap the elected Legislative Council (Legco) the moment sovereignty reverts to China on 1 July next year. "We have to work to deal with that issue," he said, asked about the unelected provisional Legco which Peking will install instead.

There was little talk of specifics. "Both sides have agreed on the need to strengthen our co-operation over Hong Kong in the remaining year before the transfer of sovereignty to China," he insisted.

Mr Heseltine will meet President Jiang Zemin in Zhuhai at the end of the week, and have a final stop in Hong Kong where 6 million people will be eager to hear if he has wrung any concessions out of the mainland government about their political future.

England in Peking, page 32

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
A poster by Durham Constabulary
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine