Liz McAreavey: Brexit Britain has a lot to learn from China

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It was a great pleasure to join Team Edinburgh on a trade trip to the Xi’an Silk Road International Expo in China last week.

It was my second visit to China and I confess to being completely enamoured with the country, its people and culture, particularly Xi’an, a beautiful walled city and the birthplace of Chinese civilisation and the starting point of the ancient Silk Road.

As a sister city to Xi’an, Edinburgh was guest of honour at the International Expo. It was an illuminating few days – not only an opportunity to build relations with senior Chinese officials and open up trade opportunities, but it was obvious that China used the platform to lay out their plans for the reopening of the Silk Road – their One Road, One Belt initiative.

The scale of ambition, the unity from national to regional through to city government, the clarity of thought, the extensive planning and now the communication to the world marketplace on how they will deliver the opening up of China, was startling. A China that wants to ensure mutual benefits of trade with neighbours and the wellbeing of the nine countries that made up the ancient Silk Road.

But this is China; efficient, productive and united, in stark contrast to the UK. Whilst on the face of it promoting an outward reaching, global nation, looking for new trade partnerships, Britain’s faltering attempt at Brexit, riddled with infighting and uncertainty is giving mixed messages.

We appear to be pulling up the drawbridge and taking on a protectionist air of ‘taking back sovereignty’ for a bet on the future benefits of unilateralism. Not only are we withdrawing from neighbourly EU collaboration, but so far we have no clarity on the terms of the agreement for our exit. There has been no clear plan or timeframe on what a post-Brexit UK would look like or even how it would be delivered.

The public disunity amongst senior Tories on whether it is a hard or soft Brexit, whether we have a Single Market Partnership or a clean break, or if indeed the Prime Minister has the remit to determine the terms of our departure or whether Parliament must debate and vote on the final agreement is unsettling. Communication is poor, business is confused and unsure of options to take and now there is talk of a potential second referendum. It doesn’t compare well to the efficient, though admittedly different, political structure of the Chinese.

So much time is being taken up by Government and parliament on this opaque debate, there seems little time for domestic affairs like productivity, the Industrial Strategy, skills and rebuilding a disenfranchised and polarised society, things which the Chinese seem to prioritise and value highly.

We are creating increased division domestically and internationally rather than showing ourselves as world leaders uniting global cooperation and trade. China has taken that mantle.

What I am sure of though is that there are many opportunities for Scottish business. Fintech innovation, AI, data, food and drink, tourism – all things for which Scotland has world class credentials – are of huge interest to China, as is knowledge transfer, cultural cooperation and youth and educational exchange.

China may not be for the faint hearted but it is a rich and growing economy, hungry for innovation and meaningful partnerships. Direct flights between Beijing and Edinburgh starting in June will enable increased trade. If the Silk Road starts in Xi’an it must certainly reach and end in Scotland.

Liz McAreavey is the chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.