Manchester’s Chinese student population can play a major “bridging” role linking potential Chinese investors with companies and projects across the north.
Speaking at the Manchester China Economics Conference, Dr Jiajia Liu from Alliance Manchester Business School said the UK should not underestimate the influence that students can have on investment decisions, particularly given that their parents are often in positions of power back home in China. “Chinese investors make their decisions based on trust and students undoubtedly have a role to play. There is huge opportunity for universities and investors to work together.”
Dr Liu said Chinese investors were particularly interested in investing in the north, while they were also keen to move away from just investing in property. However she added that investment had to benefit both countries. “The challenge and opportunity for Manchester is how to utilise investment to the benefit of not just the UK but of China too.”
The conference, organised by Pro-Manchester at Manchester Airport, heard that Chinese interest in investing in Manchester and the wider North West had increased significantly since the visit of President Xi Jinping to the city last year, during which he also visited The University of Manchester.
Rhys Whalley, Executive Director of the Manchester-China Forum, said there had been “tremendous progress” in the Manchester-China relationship. “The President’s visit has been a huge impetus. We have seen a massive knock-on effect in terms of Chinese activity and investment into the region.”
Some of that activity has been around increasing air links between Manchester and China. For instance this summer Hainan Airlines launched Manchester’s first direct flight to Beijing, and the conference heard that there were likely to be a number of new routes between Manchester and China in the near future, in particular a direct flight to Shanghai.
Meanwhile delegates heard that the Northern Powerhouse was gaining traction in China too. For instance Sir Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, said on a recent visit to China he was “staggered” at the number of people wanting to talk about Northern Powerhouse. “It is quite remarkable how the brand around Northern Powerhouse has got to such a high level of public awareness in China where people want to talk about it.”
However Sir Howard said back in the UK it was important that the north started to see broad commitments from the government around Northern Powerhouse translating into definitive statements, especially around transport. “Without transport investment the Northern Powerhouse does not hang together. The problem is that as a country we do not do big decisions on transport very well and we need to rethink how we make decisions around big transport projects. For instance we need both HS2 and HS3. HS2 is about capacity, HS3 is about productivity and connecting adjacent city regions in the north.”
Lack of plan
Ed Cox, Director of think tank IPPR, said there was a lack of a clear, coherent plan for the Northern Powerhouse. “When I speak to Chinese investors they tell me that they need to see a five-year plan. They want to know how our energy sector in the North West links up with transport, links with skills. If we are going to make connections then we need to talk in large scale terms. The challenge is that we are all relatively parochial in the north and there are some real challenges about how you bring that together.”
The IPPR has itself put together a ‘Great North Plan’ detailing next steps for the Northern Powerhouse. “We need to see the government put its hand in its pocket too,” added Cox.