Five days on the road with George Osborne in China
George Osborne flies into the Chinese capital for a five-day tour at the head of a delegation that looks suspiciously prime ministerial in scale. Business leaders, cultural chiefs and the bosses of northern councils file out of his charter plane and into the waiting convoy.
Sunday — Beijing
“I’m here as the prime minister’s envoy,” Mr Osborne insists. He says his role is to prepare the ground for President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain next month, but his Beijing hosts are laying on the full red carpet treatment.
Sir Gerry Grimstone, chairman of Standard Life and a member of the travelling party, says: “They see him as very powerful. They know he’s committed to China. They trust him.”
Mr Osborne watches approvingly as Chinese versions of Richard III and War Horse are performed at the old National Theater, then declares to his audience that Britain and China have given more to world culture than any other nations.
It turns out that for Mr Osborne, the trip is personal. His mother learnt Chinese at university and lived in the country in the 1970s, he travelled around China 20 years ago, and now his daughter is learning Mandarin at school.
“I’ve always been fascinated by this country,” he says. “It helps to have travelled round this country with a backpack on a bus rather than a high-speed train.”
Monday — Beijing
Britain’s new policy towards China, as articulated by Mr Osborne, is starting to sound like a medley of whiskery pop songs. Channelling Bryan Adams, the chancellor declares that instead of heading for the exit, “we should run towards China”.
He seems to have taken his cue from another Bryan — Ferry — as he declares of Britain’s relationship with China: “Let’s stick together.” Back in Britain, the precise angle of Mr Osborne’s knee-bending is the subject of much discussion.
The main agenda item is the seventh Economic and Financial Dialogue, the occasion for a series of mind-numbing speeches, and for another small step to be taken in expanding the role of the City of London in Chinese finance.
Tuesday — Shanghai
A visit to the “epicentre” of the Chinese market crash: the Shanghai stock exchange. Mr Osborne’s main speech of the trip is a case study in the chancellor’s rare grasp of both the tactical and strategic arts of politics.
The venue of the speech attracts headlines but Mr Osborne’s assertion that the summer crash was a mere blip in China’s rise is primarily strategic: a signal to Beijing that Britain is with China for the long-term and is not a fair-weather friend.
Mr Osborne deployed the same tactics in March this year. Knowing that a number of European countries were about to join China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Mr Osborne the tactician pre-empted them by a few hours so that Britain got the credit for being the first mover.
Washington was furious, as Mr Osborne fully expected. But that played into his strategic plan: it is clear on this trip that Beijing has not forgotten that the chancellor was prepared to incur the wrath of Britain’s closest ally in favour of China.
Wednesday — Urumqi
Mr Osborne heads out into the capital of the remote and restive Xinjiang region in a 17-car convoy, highways sealed off, security everywhere. Beijing was wary when Mr Osborne suggested visiting and British journalists were advised not to cover the visit.
News filters through of ethnic violence at a colliery 400 miles away allegedly involving Muslim Uighur “extremists”. A security crackdown follows and Mr Osborne is under pressure to criticise Beijing’s heavy-handed approach.
But he appears more preoccupied with drumming up trade at a local company, which is diversifying out of cement and mutton with plans to invest £60m in housing in the north of England.
His refusal to publicly condemn Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs plays well with his hosts, although he insists he has raised human rights in private. The Guardian asks him if he is acting as “a propaganda tool” for Beijing.
Watching him in action in Urumqi is instructive: on the big things, Mr Osborne is bold, a risk-taker. Why else would he be here? But on the small things, he lets his media minders ruthlessly control his “serious statesman” persona.
He refuses to wear a Uighur cap (the only headgear the chancellor is allowed to wear is a hard hat), declines a traditional Uighur dance and studiously avoids kicking a football when it is played in to his feet by the Financial Times at a local training camp. “Nice try, George,” he says.
The day ends with a visit to Yar, a ruined mud city on the Silk Road half way between Beijing and Europe. Mr Osborne is making up for lost time: he tried to get here 20 years ago but the flights were full.
Thursday — Chengdu
Mr Osborne’s party flies south out of Urumqi and over the wastes of the Tibetan plateau towards the city of Chengdu — “China’s northern powerhouse”, according to the chancellor, although the capital of Sichuan province is actually in the south-west.
The aircraft descends through one layer of grey cloud and then down through a second, fouler, brown haze smothering the city. Daylight seems to have died in the struggle to penetrate these two barriers, but Mr Osborne is stunned by the vibrant city’s transformation in the two decades since he was last here with his backpack.
The Niccolo hotel ballroom is in gaudy contrast to the perma-dusk outside. Under the glittering chandeliers Mr Osborne regales an audience of potential investors with the glories of his “northern powerhouse” and tales of his previous visit to Sichuan, when he inspected the pandas and found himself under monkey attack.
Jim O’Neill, inventor of the Brics concept and now Mr Osborne’s northern powerhouse minister, mingles with civic leaders from Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. He jokes: “They love each other so much now they want to merge their cities.”
At midnight, Mr Osborne’s chartered plane heads takes off for London. The chancellor pops down for a chat and is teased about breaking news that William Hill has slashed his odds on becoming next Tory leader to 11/8 following his trip to China.
Someone remarks that China Daily, Beijing’s English-language mouthpiece, has also endorsed him for his “pragmatic” diplomacy.
“That’s 1.3bn votes,” Mr Osborne jokes. “Maybe we could get them all signed up as affiliated supporters of the Conservative party.”