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Britain Is Far from Stuck in the Past'

'Britain Is Far from Stuck in the Past'

Speech by FCO Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, British Council, Shanghai, Wednesday 23 May 2001. Source: FCO, London.

I think that I’ve had the chance to meet most of you but for those of you who have just arrived my name is Patricia Scotland, and I am the Foreign Office Minister in the British House of Lords.

First may I begin by thanking so many of you for coming here today. This is my first visit to China and I am very grateful for the opportunity to meet with such a group of young, talented individuals. Although I have only been in Shanghai for fewer than 24 hours, I have already gained a strong sense of the city’s dynamism and sense of purpose. Before I came here, I naturally had some idea of the pace of change over the past 10 years in Shanghai, but the sheer magnitude of what has been achieved and the scale of what is planned for the future has taken me by surprise.

Some of this surprise, at least, can be attributed to the gap that still exists between the perception of China in the West – in many cases an outdated image of martial arts and sedan chairs – and the reality of a China that is a modern, rapidly developing country. It is a gap that is to be seen in both directions – perceptions held by Chinese people of Britain are often no more accurate. And indeed the purpose of my talk today is to challenge some of those perceptions and to see if I can give you a taste of Britain in 2001; a country that leads in creativity, in cutting edge technology and in cultural diversity.

It is particularly fitting that I should be here today in the offices of the British Council in Shanghai. This is not only because in themselves these offices project an image of a modern and innovative Britain but also because almost exactly 18 months ago I had the opportunity to speak at a British Council organised conference on international perceptions of the UK.

This conference followed on from the publication of the British Council’s survey 'Through Other Eyes' which over a period of two years looked at the attitude of young people in 30 different countries towards various aspects of the UK. The survey told us a great deal about how people around the world saw us and, as a result, a great deal about ourselves as a nation. One of the most striking things that I remember, however, was the view that the Chinese in particular had of the UK. Of the thirty countries surveyed, it was China which had by far the worst opinion of us.

A lot of this seems to stem from the mutual misunderstanding that still exists between China and Britain. The Consul General told me last night that at a recent talk he gave to a group of Chinese university students he asked them to tell him what were the first images that came to mind when they thought of Britain. The immediate answer was bowler hats and foggy London.

I work everyday in London on Whitehall, the traditional home of the bowler hat. But I have never even seen a bowler hat. I doubt that any of the other British people in this room have either. And I would not want to and do not have to live in a city that is full of smog and pollution. London today is one of the cleanest metropolises in the world. The Thames, the river which runs through London, is now so clean that fish and animals that can only survive in the purest of water, including seals, have been seen in the centre of London for the first time in centuries.

The greatest single criticism the Chinese participants in the survey had of the UK was that Britain was too stuck in the past. More than 50% of Chinese listed the UK’s tradition and history as our greatest weakness. Britain does have a long history. And it is a history of which we are proud. A pride which the Chinese people, who have one of the longest recorded histories in the world, I am sure can understand.

But Britain is far from stuck in the past. It was in Britain that the television, the computer, the locomotive and radar were invented. It was there that DNA and penicillin were discovered. And we continue to lead in innovation. A British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Dolly the Sheep was cloned in a British laboratory. It was in Britain that the research and development of Viagra was carried out as well as the research and development of another 10 of the top 35 medicines in the world. More Nobel Science prizes, 70, have been won by British scientists than by the scientists of any other nation apart from the US. And the UK is also the home of cutting edge culture and arts. It was British directors who made such films as Gladiator and American Beauty, both of which won multiple Oscars. Musicians such as Dido, the Spice Girls and Radiohead continue to set the trend for popular music. And British DJs and nightclubs are still considered to be the best in Europe. Our young modern artists are known for their commitment to new and exciting styles and forms.

The British Council survey came to similarly negative conclusions about the UK’s business reputation in China. Most Chinese respondents ranked the UK well behind other European countries in terms of economic and commercial strength. Many thought that our commitment to the China market was weak. Yet the UK, with over US$ 18 billion of contractual investment is the largest European investor in China. And BP, a British company, is the largest single private investor in the whole of China. The fundamental strength of the British economy has meant that 33% of all Foreign Direct Investment into the European Union is into the UK. The UK attracts 42% of all American EU investment, 46% of all Japanese EU investment and a staggering 80% of all Taiwanese EU investment.

Britain then is, I believe, a vibrant and exciting country. And what makes me particularly proud is that this is not the achievement of a few middle-aged men in bowler hats but is an achievement in which all of Britain – modern Britain – can share. Britain today is a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-racial country. Contemporary British society is a mixing together of the talents and creativity of many different groups – White, Black, Asian and other minorities. London is a perfect example of this. Today’s London is home to over 300 different languages and houses 30 ethnic communities of at least 10,000 residents. I need hardly say that the Chinese community in London is one of the oldest and continues to play a vital role in the daily life of the capital.

I don’t intend to go on much longer. I am not going to try and convince you today that Britain is the best country in the world. I hope though that perhaps some of the things that I have mentioned are new to you and might encourage you to see the UK from a new angle.

I do believe that for the relationship between our two countries to continue to grow and develop it should be built on a genuine and mutual awareness. Building such awareness is a long process. The British Council works hard to achieve this. It encourages cultural and artistic exchanges such as the recent Henry Moore exhibition and the forthcoming series of concerts by the British pianist Joanna McGregor. The Council also works to set up two-way links in the fields of law, social welfare, sport and, of course, education. I know that some of you here today are involved in the very successful school links project, which is helping to build long-term relationships between British and Chinese schools. And the Council is trying to improve the understanding of China amongst British people by promoting the teaching of Mandarin Chinese in British schools.

Just as important to this process is the contribution made by those young people from both our countries who travel, study and work in the UK or China and have an opportunity to experience the culture of the other country first hand. This number is increasing all the time in both directions. The number of students, for example, from the East China region that went to study in the UK last year increased by 50% from the year before.

Many such young people are here today. Some have recently returned from the UK, others are still planning to go. As I said this is my first visit to China – I certainly hope it is not my last. Next time I come I will be ready for a China that is without doubt one of the most dynamic countries in the world. My hope is that this brief talk will mean that those of you who are coming to the UK in the near future will be just as ready for a London without smog and without bowler hats.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).