By Rosie Blau
At Madame Tussauds in Beijing, Britain is represented by just three wax figures: the Queen, Prince William and Kate Middleton. This captures many Chinese people’s view of the UK. They see it as a country rich in historical tradition, which treasures and preserves its heritage – but also one that is slightly out-dated, a land of gentlemen and teacups.
Britain should not be concerned that heritage is still its greatest selling point in Beijing or beyond. After decades of an antagonistic and even violent relationship with their own past, the Chinese are newly awakening to the wonders of history, both their own and other people’s. After the concrete, high-rise cities of China, with only small pockets of old buildings and streets left, the Chinese laud London for its historic palaces, charming houses and high culture – and as a gateway to the rest of the country.
The notion of Britain as a living museum is slowly beginning to change, however, and London is at the heart of this shift. This is in part because the capital’s own narrative appeals to current Chinese mores. Two decades ago London was so well known for its fog that it was one of the only English words many Chinese people knew. Dickens (and Shakespeare) still loom larger than any contemporary cultural figure, but as belching factories have darkened Chinese skies, most are now aware that London’s peasoupers are a thing of the past. They find inspiration in the idea that the British capital faced its environmental foes and won. (Though it remains ‘a fact’ in China that it rains in Britain all the time).
London’s attempts to sell itself as cool and modern also appeal to the sensibilities of China’s growing middle class. For Beijing, hosting the Olympic Games in 2008 was a chance for China to come out on the world stage. London needed no such introduction, but having caught the Olympic bug four years earlier, the Chinese media covered London’s 2012 Games with abundance and many people were surprised by the cool, relaxed and fun image the capital conveyed.
London’s attempts to sell itself as cool and modern also appeal to the sensibilities of China’s growing middle class.
More and more Chinese now have the chance to see that London for themselves, and their experience is quite different from earlier generations. The first Chinese came to Britain in the early 19Th century, and in the 1950s and 60s migrants poured in, mostly Cantonese speakers from Guangdong and Hong Kong. Many were fleeing the political and economic strife back home and landed with little in their pockets. In 1985, 90% of employed Chinese in Britain worked in the catering trade and only 2% were professionals. 2 That has changed. Since the Chinese government relaxed emigration policies in the mid-1980s, a second wave of mainland Chinese has come to Britain, far more varied than earlier groups, on average far richer and better educated than earlier arrivals (and than the UK population as a whole). China now makes up the single largest group of immigrants to arrive in Britain each year.
By far the largest group is students. In the 1980s these were predominantly state-funded scholarship students, but these days most pay their own way, and their number increase every year. Chinese nationals now make up around 15% of international students in British universities 3 – and the same proportion of overseas pupils at private secondary schools. 4 Most of them live in cities; a third are in London. 5
Though education is one of Britain’s most important exports to China, the UK could still do more to project itself to lure prospective students. American accents long ago replaced English ones as the preferred pronunciation in schools, and America and Australia both beat Britain as the preferred destination for young Chinese seeking to study abroad. America’s primacy partly reflects its clout in the world more generally, but it also relates to softer influences: America exports popular shows such as Friends, Desperate Housewives and Game of Thrones, for example, which are dubbed into Chinese.
The British, by contrast, more often sell the format of programmes like Who wants to be a millionaire and China’s got talent, which make money for UK companies but whose British branding is less obvious once they are released into the Chinese market.
British branding is at its most powerful when it comes to luxury London, enjoyed by an ever-growing mass of Chinese tourists. Few Chinese people could name the UK Prime Minister or a British bank, but an increasing number know Burberry, Mulberry and Rolls Royce. The flight to Bond Street was once about a mad rush for goods that could not be bought in China. Most such items are available on the mainland these days, but since they are subject to a luxury tax in China they cost less overseas. Chinese visitors often do their research at home and bring detailed shopping lists on their travels, for themselves and their friends.
London should be doing all it can to charm these Chinese tourists: nearly 200,000 arrive every year 6 and they spend four times as much as the average foreign visitor to Britain. 7 VisitBritain is cottoning on to this: in an effort to drum up excitement about the country, it recently invited people to suggest Mandarin names for iconic attractions such as The Shard (‘The London cone’), Savile Row (‘tall, rich, handsome street’) and the Mall (‘Buckingham Boulevard’). 6
Chinese investors are following Russian ones into buying up property in London, and are happier to buy off-plan for new developments than most other nationalities.
Chinese money is starting to change London – just slightly. Chinese investors are following Russian ones into buying up property in London, and are happier to buy off-plan for new developments than most other nationalities. A few Chinese designers are making forays into the fashion market. Chinese food in London, so long known for its fatty meat swimming in sweet, gloopy sauces, has improved unutterably as it has had to serve more people from the home market.
Despite the growing engagement, though, the vast majority of the Chinese population rarely thinks about London or the UK, and has little prospect of visiting it (though they tend to like it when they do). Their lack of knowledge about the UK is surpassed only by British ignorance of China. These days it is Londoners who often fail to think beyond the great smog of Beijing.