Chairman's Blog: #MidlandsEngine in China

31st October - 4th November 2016

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In this, the latest Chairman's blog, David Williams provides a daily update on the Midlands Engine visit to China. 

From 31 October to 4 November,  David Williams as well as over 58 delegates from 36 organisations across the Midlands Engine will be heading to China.  The focus of the mission is to develop trade, investment, higher education and regional relationships with the Chinese Government.

Day One

Monday, 31st October 2016

This visit to China comes at a critical time for both the Country and for the wider Derby and East Midlands region. The political events of the Summer have set us on a course that will inevitably require a re-calibration of our trading position across the globe. However, even before that, the changing picture of global infrastructure investment and the positioning of Derby as a global centre of excellence in advanced manufacturing made China and Chinese Industry an increasingly important partner for the City.

The Hefei region is recognised as one of the fastest growing and important regions of economic performance in China. This trade delegation includes some of Derby’s leading and multi-national businesses as well as senior representatives from Central & Local Government and Academia and will enable us to establish and develop the relationships that will be required to encourage industrial collaboration, inward investment and export opportunities – all of which will be needed as key components for the City to develop to its full and exciting potential.

Day Two

Tuesday, 1st November 2016

It’s a little difficult to assemble your thoughts after the visual assault which is Shanghai.

We were reminded this morning by the British Consul that there are 25 million people in Shanghai alone and 230 million in East China. Indeed, we travelled today to the city of Hefei (8 million) by high speed train and saw nothing other than cities for three hours – with no gaps!

I am trying to leave out exclamation marks and words like “amazing” and “incredible” but it's hard.

I'm not here to gawk like a tourist. We're passing out the message that post Brexit Britain is open for business. Our audience locally is an economy larger than India or Germany.

We seem to be hitting the right notes. Brits are popular and trusted here. China has cash it wants to invest. It is no longer a low cost production economy and certainly not one which just copies other products.

The returns from a Derby and Derbyshire approach to China will not be instant but they will come. The Leaders of both were well received at a civic reception tonight (Monday). The talk was of our similarities. Hard work, innovation and consistency are traits we share. This is shown by a shared focus in Derby and Derbyshire and Hefei and Anhui province on advanced engineering, healthcare, life sciences and creative industries.

My guts are telling me that the investment in this trip and those to come will bear great dividends.

I'm breaking off now to get the number of hours sleep over last three days into double figures.

Day Three

Wednesday, 2nd November 2016

Today we had the opportunity to get under the skin of Hefei and Anhui Province.

We had escorted tours of their Business and Technology centre, the JAC automotive plant and iFlex – a world leading company in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and voice recognition software. With all three there were both lessons to be learned and possibilities for future business.

We met with the mayor and senior politicians and bureaucrats of the city and the two cities signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Very specific proposals were discussed for working together on business, cultural and education projects.

Later in the day, led by Derbyshire, we met the provincial government (the next tier of government up). Again, an agreement was signed and working arrangements discussed.

All of this is a bit dry and factual because, in essence, it was.

You had to be there to feel the warmth of the reception we got and to appreciate the mutual desire for things to come from these meetings to benefit both countries and localities.

It's quite clear that, without the state on side, progress in China would be slow at best. The ground was laid today for some extremely exciting projects and credit to City and County for getting us in that position.

Britain, Derby and Derbyshire need friends now more than ever, particularly those prepared to invest in our economy. Relations with Hefei and Anhui are developing at just the right time.

Day Four

Thursday, 3rd November 2016

The Midlands Engine delegation came back from Hefei to Shanghai today. The last two days have been a whirlwind of meetings from early morning to late night with no gaps – a little like the view from the train window in my earlier post.

Initially, as I reported yesterday, the meetings had been at political and government level. That was critical to do to gain trust.

This morning we had the opportunity to meet with businesses and, again, it would be hard for those meetings to have been more productive.

Given that we are at the earliest stage of developing relations, I came away with three distinct possibilities for Geldards and for Derby College (with which I am also involved) which could prove very exciting.

China is no third world country. It is switched on and ambitious. The Chinese like us and have gone out of the way to make us welcome.

I am sure that all of us on the visit, politicians, council officers and business people alike, had misgivings as to whether it would bear fruit. It will certainly need investment and commitment but it certainly seems that working jointly with Anhui and Hefei for mutual benefit is no pipe dream.

Day Five

Friday, 4th November 2016

Last day. Stuck in an endless traffic jam trying to cross Shanghai with 25 million other people to get to a reception at the British Consul’s residence.

Probably the least useful day today spent at a conference attempting to bring Chinese and British businesses together. Too much time spent in lectures as opposed to real action. Frustrating as it will be another 15 hour day.

Off to the airport very early tomorrow for the flight home. What will I be looking back on ?

  • A fantastic, friendly country and people.
  • A country and region making massive economic progress.
  • A real enthusiasm to engage from both sides.
  • A very real sense that concrete proposals have been made which can benefit us all.
  • A feeling that we must get slicker in presenting ourselves

Finally, a frustration that I have not been able in these notes to give you a real flavour of the experience. 

We are all sensitive to China’s history and politics but the sheer scale and speed of their recent achievements is staggering. After all that, it is apparent that we need them and they need us. We are innovators, they have resources. We both need to export to survive and trade between the two of us is huge.

I am a little surprised to find myself saying this but we must invest in these relationships and return time and again because the opportunity is too great to miss.

Finally, as a person whose role is in business, I would say that we should thank both the Derby City and Derbyshire County authorities for the efforts they have made on our behalf. It would be easier for them to avoid the criticism that comes with these initiatives but “if you keep on doing the same things....."

For further Midlands Engine Information

Please visit The Midlands Engine for further information on the initiative and the businesses involve.




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David Williams


Chairman, Derby

+44 (0)115 983 3757