I’m writing this week’s column having just arrived home in Glasgow from a successful official visit to China – so this is a good opportunity to share some reflections on what has been a very productive week.
This week marked my first visit to China in three years – and with Brexit looming on the horizon, it took place in a very different political climate. Indeed, Brexit was a significant talking point among the business leaders that I spoke to.
Official visits such as these are very important for strengthening economic ties – especially at a time when many Scottish businesses are looking to enter into, or expand their operations in the Chinese market.
But as well as promoting economic ties, I also wanted to deepen the cultural links between Scotland and China – there is no doubt that these are key to opening up a deeper understanding between our two countries.
Six days and three cities later – Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong – I am confident that this visit was a success.
It has also reinforced a view that I have held for some time – that we Scots don’t give ourselves enough credit for how well known we are in the world.
For a country of five million people, we punch well above our weight in terms of our international brand recognition. This is an enormous asset for us to build on in terms of trade and investment.
Trade with China is booming – in fact, according to HMRC, our goods exports to China rose by a massive 40 per cent in the last year alone.
Much of this is driven by our high quality food and drink produce, which more generally is one of our key success stories. In particular, Chinese people have fallen in love with Scotch whisky and salmon.
But there are many other sectors which are also doing exceptionally well. Tourism spend by Chinese visitors to Scotland has soared in recent years, and as China’s economy continues to grow, more and more Chinese people will want to visit Scotland – something that will be helped considerably by the new, direct airline between Edinburgh and Beijing that will become operational in June.
So I as headed off to China, I knew I was going to be building on some very firm foundations.
2018 is of course Scotland’s Year of Young People, and it was great to be able to meet a number of Scottish students who are out in China just now as part of the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools programme.
Listening to their experiences, I was struck by the sense of adventure and independence of mind of these students – secondary school leavers who have travelled halfway across the world and immersed themselves in another culture and language.
During my visit I tried out a few basic Mandarin phrases myself – they seemed to be well received, although it may be that people were just being polite!
I met with Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in Beijing. Being received by such a senior member of the Chinese Government is itself a symbol of the growing importance that China places on its relationship with Scotland. We spoke about our shared desire to see the links between our two countries, and areas where we could collaborate further.
It also gave me a chance to raise – in an appropriate and constructive way – how human rights, social values and the rule of law underpins our engagement with China.
And a key platform for me to do that was during an event hosted by UNICEF the following day, where I gave a keynote speech in which I publicly and explicitly called for the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child to be upheld – for all children in every country.
As well as promoting Scotland’s economic potential in meetings with business leaders, I also took part in events to promote Scotland’s cultural sector and our universities.
One of my key engagements was to help launch a major new international marketing campaign, called ‘Scotland is Now’ which promotes Scotland as a place to live, work, invest, study and do business.
If you head over to www.scotland.org, you’ll see what I’m talking about – I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty impressive looking campaign.
There were ‘Scotland is Now’ launch events last week in Beijing, Shanghai, New York, San Francisco and London.
The two which I attended in China were resounding successes – with the many Chinese people present able to meet Scottish business representatives, sample some great Scottish food and drink produce, and of course experience our warm and friendly hospitality!
My last engagement of the week was to meet with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was keen to further develop Scotland-Hong Kong relations.
As I return home, I am genuinely impressed by the level of engagement that Scotland has developed with China – not least given the geographical distance between us.
But I’m also aware that China is a very big country, and there is so much more that we could be doing – so last week’s engagements have given us a lot to build on and we are determined to seize the opportunities.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.