Fringe Box



Letter: Scrub the Visit to China

Published on: 9 Oct, 2017
Updated on: 9 Oct, 2017

From David Roberts

You don’t have to be a spoilsport to think that the planned visit to China by the three senior Guildford Borough Council (GBC) leaders is a waste of their time and our money.

In my long career promoting international relations, the Foreign Office consistently avoided having anything to do with town-twinning (or “partnering” – the difference is semantic).

Cllr David Wright [Con, Tillingbourne], who was also a diplomat, could verify that the only exception made was for mayors or lord mayors of our biggest cities, who were always accompanied by serious trade delegations. Other town-twinning visits were usually just an excuse for reciprocal overseas jollies at taxpayers’ expense by local government figures, with much junketing, sight-seeing and exchanging of gifts.

The heyday of town-twinning was in the 1950s and 60s, when few ordinary people travelled very far. Expensive exchanges of visits by local leaders appealed greatly to European countries such as Germany and France with deep historical suspicions to overcome, and to Communist dictatorships (which China still is) as a Cold War propaganda exercise.

The UK has always been relatively immune to this craze, and rightly wary of linking up with places with a poor environmental or human rights record. Nowadays, with mass budget travel, Skype and social media, the value of this elitist approach to “people-to-people” contacts is much diminished.

I’m prepared to believe there may be benefits in Guildford’s link with Freiburg-im-Breisgau, a well-run if rather sleepy place, tucked away in the Black Forest. But Versailles, that great monument to despotism, waste and misrule, is a comical town to want to partner with. And Dongying, an ugly new oil port on the Chinese coast with two million inhabitants, makes an even stranger place with which Guildford should have a special connection. One wonders what public benefit there could conceivably be.

Any existing personal links between the visitors and Dongying should set alarm bells ringing. What, for instance, is the exact connection between Max Lu Gaoqing, the Vice-Chancellor of Surrey University, and Dongying, whose representatives, according to Cllr Spooner, “want to support not only Max Lu but us”?

Dongying has suffered from serious corruption and any business links with the city run the risk of being viewed with suspicion. Disgraced Politburo member Zhou Yongkang held a senior appointment there. He was at the apex of China’s biggest-ever corruption scandal and is lucky not to have been executed.

Commentators in The Dragon have already asked whether our development-mad councillors are facilitating, knowingly or not, off-plan sales of property at Blackwell Farm to speculators from Dongying.

China is no place for amateurs. Britain has a fine overseas network of embassies and consulates which promote UK exports, science and innovation links and direct foreign investment into the UK, as well as British Council offices that work hard to foster cultural and educational connections. Rather than jumping on a plane to China, I wonder what steps GBC has taken to task these public bodies, who employ full-time experts familiar with the local language and culture, to identify opportunities for cooperation and productive investment.

Most of their services are free, and using them would avoid the risk of council leaders becoming implicated with Chinese or private companies in giving or receiving improper benefits. Have councillors bothered to seek the views of our Local Enterprise Partnership? If an outward visit really is necessary, why not join a China-British Trade Council mission? The CBTC really do know how to open doors.

The Dongying visit has got off to a particularly bad start with the claim that it will cost us only £5,000. More than this will have already gone on administrative costs, and flights alone will cost as much again – even in the unlikely event that special-offer seats in economy class have been booked. Transfers, in-country costs, gifts and hospitality are likely to multiply this amount.

The Chinese are very fond of banquets and gift-exchange. Will entertainment and accommodation be appropriately frugal, as the councillors’ code of conduct requires? Will Cllrs Spooner and Furniss publicly donate their abundant air miles to a Guildford charity?

There is also the additional cost to residents of having our three most senior council leaders away, or jet-lagged for several days. The costs won’t stop there, of course, since the local Chinese authorities will expect Guildford to pay for a lavish visit in return, and more visits in the future.

Meanwhile, what does Guildford get out of this vanity project? One possible outcome is more property bought up with hot money from China, out-pricing local people and adding to the distortion of the housing market. Another is a fresh wave of doubt about the judgement and priorities of our council leaders, and resentment at the lack of consultation and scrutiny.

As public servants, the visitors need to be seen to avoid any risk that power entrusted to them is misused, or perceived to be. The best way to do that is to scrub the visit. If Guildford wants to develop clean and productive links with other countries there are simpler and less dangerous ways to proceed.


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Responses to Letter: Scrub the Visit to China

  1. Lisa Wright Reply

    October 9, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    I am thankful for David Roberts concise comments. I wasn’t aware that the UK already has the diplomats and trade negotiators for this kind of linking.

    Would a member of the council please let us know from what short list of suitable towns Dongying was chosen and why? Perhaps we could have a copy of the minutes of that meeting?

    Furthermore, if this visit is for the benefit of Guildford residents, why is the president of the student union invited and not for instance, someone from the Chamber of Commerce or our MP, Anne Milton?

    I am getting really fed up with the cosyness of the university and GBC since the Blackwell Farm development for a new business park and housing estate on the university fields was announced. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who smells a whole cage full of rats?

  2. Sue Reeve Reply

    October 9, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    I can only hope that this letter was sent to every borough councillor so that they have the opportunity at Tuesday night’s vote at the council meeting to be fully aware of what they are voting about and, in particular, what risks they are subjecting Guildford to if they support the actions of Cllrs Spooner and Furniss.

    We are very lucky that Mr Robert’s previous employment puts him in a position to advise us of the pros (are there any?) and cons of this proposition.

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