Peace, prosperity and progress

Jan RoyallJan Royall on the mutual benefits to be found in stronger EU relations with China

David Cameron, as we all know, is currently in China accompanied by over 100 business men and women from around Britain. This is of course, welcome; but having been in China myself last week for a series of discussions and a visit to Ningxia province to see some of the new reforms being implemented, it is clear that progress also comes with potential problems.  

The journey of a thousand miles to deepen UK/China relationships began with a single step but it is now a path well trodden. In just two weeks, we have seen the successful 16th EU-China Summit, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has taken a delegation to Beijing, and Premier Li was in Romania with the EU’s 16 Central and Eastern member states. For China, the EU is a gateway to an important market of 508 million people. For the EU, investment in infrastructure is critical and the new high speed rail link between Hungary and Serbia (as part of the new Silk rail route) will eventually lead to an overland trading link with China.

The economic reforms in China have been extraordinary and there is determination to make these sustainable. The strong, clear message is that China is open for business and I was told on several occasions during my visit that "the market should play a decisive role". And this of course means that we have to maximise our own capabilities, as Ed Miliband said today: "The only way we can compete with China – and the only way Britain can win – is by winning a race to the top. A race to the top where we compete on the basis of a high skill, high tech, high wage economy – encouraging small businesses who want to grow, helping young people who want to get on and businesses which want to train, backing the real wealth creators in our country."  

This is exactly what China is doing, albeit with at least five huge challenges:  

  • First, the central goal of the reforms is to reorient China to a growth model that will eventually benefit everyone.  That means rebalancing to reduce an over-reliance on investment and increasing consumer demand.  
  • Second, the economy needs to move from one that is based on the ideas of other nations to one which embraces innovation, unlocking the talents and creativity of its people. This requires big changes in the system of education and training.
  • Third, the reforms have to meet the demands of the people. With change people’s expectations are rising and these have to be met, for example in terms of pensions.
  • Fourth, there are new issues such as child care. As more young people move from rural to urban areas, the extended family is changing and it is more difficult for grandparents to take on caring responsibilities, yet nursery provision is almost non-existent.  
  • Fiifth, there has to be improved health and education provision, including for those who move to the cities but are still registered in the regions where they were born.

China’s leaders are both aware of these problems and working day and night to find solutions. Many social reforms are already being implemented, and efforts to set up a social security system are being accelerated - recognising that workers and their families need a safety net but that this is also critical in promoting development and maintaining stability. 

The management of urbanisation is crucial at a time when hundreds of millions of people are migrating from rural areas into the cities. In Ningxia, an autonomous region to the west of Beijing, home of the Hui Muslims and with the only woman governor in China, I saw some fine examples of migrant lives being improved. New communities being built where families are given a house, a greenhouse to grow their food; and where one family member is guaranteed a job and the children have a fantastic new kindergarten. But the sheer numbers involved present a challenge. There are homes for the elderly where there is a real focus on exercise and day centres used by both elderly people and school children – policy areas, incidentally, that we should look at closely in the UK.

We are hungry for Chinese investment, business opportunities and a market for our goods. The Chinese are likewise hungry for business partnerships and our market. But they also want to learn from our social security, health and education systems, and how we have dealt with air pollution. Industrialisation in the UK took over 200 years when our population was a maximum of 50 million. In China it is taking place over decades rather than centuries, and with a population of 1.4 billion. Across the piece, they want to learn from our successes but also our mistakes.

It is a critical time for reform and development in China, and the country still has much work to do on fundamental rights. The challenges are enormous but so is the determination to improve governance, to complete the transformation of the economy in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way and to meet the increasing social needs and demands of the people. Co-operation between China and the EU, and with individual member states, is essential for our mutual peace and prosperity.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords and a Vice-President of the Party of European Socialists

Published 2nd December 2013

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