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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there