East of Eden: Britain must play to its strengths in exercising soft power

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Qingdao, on China’s east coast, is not a place most of us have heard of. It is not a vast conurbation by Chinese standards. It is not even among that country’s 10 most populous cities, though it gets into the top 20 by being home to 5.7 million people – a few hundred thousand more than live in Scotland. China’s cities have expanded at such a rate that vast numbers of its citizens are crammed into soulless forests of high-rise blocks, unrelieved by any recreational amenities. But life in Qingdao will soon be made pleasanter by a public facility that would make visitors from Cornwall feel at home.

The Eden Project, the educational charity behind that huge dome in Bodelva, Cornwall – under whose shelter grows the world’s largest artificially created rainforest – has signed a £100m deal with a Chinese developer to launch a similar project in Qingdao. It will be the Eden Project’s first venture abroad.

There is despair in Redcar this week. The steelworks that have been the hub of that town’s economic life for many decades are to close, partly because British manufacturers cannot compete with cheap steel from China. That catastrophe has set people asking why so many cabinet ministers, including David Cameron, George Osborne and Sajid Javid, have turned up in China, a country with a questionable record on civil rights, promoting trade.

But trade with China is not a one-way street. The rapid expansion of China’s higher education system opened up huge opportunities for British universities. Nottingham University led the way by setting up a campus in Ningbo. That – and the Eden Project, which will also be designed by British architects – are examples of what the UK does best: using soft power to gain influence in the world’s largest emerging economy. It is the global counterpoint to Redcar’s local tragedy.