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Confucius & Controversy: Nicola Sturgeon in China

Rachel Fergusson

With Edinburgh Airport launching its first direct flight to Beijing just last month, Scotland’s flourishing relations with China were reinforced this week as the First Minister embarked on a five-day visit to strengthen cultural ties and promote trade links.

Sino-Scottish relations are at heart of the government’s foreign engagement strategy and have gone from strength to strength over the last ten years. Food and drink exports have increased by over 150%, while the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Scotland has risen by 192% since 2010.

Nicola Sturgeon said her second official visit to China was about cultivating “common ground” and furthering co-operation in “trade and investment, education and culture”.

In the opening days, the First Minister announced £754,00 for the Confucius Institute for Scottish Schools programme, which awards selected sixth year pupils learning Mandarin a one-year scholarship to further their language studies at a Chinese university. She also hosted an event in Beijing to showcase Scotland’s textile design technology and food and drink industry. Collaborations on social enterprise, energy and computer game technology were also announced.

The First Minister then travelled to Shanghai where she launched a £6m global branding campaign to “transform Scotland’s place in the world” and attract international talent and investment. Targeting London, China and North America, she said the ‘Scotland is Now’ campaign would promote Scotland as a “bold and positive country, rich in history and heritage but forwards in a way that is progressive, pioneering and inclusive”.

Nurturing good relations was clearly the First Minister’s main objective but she faced pressure from opposition parties back home to raise human rights issues directly with Chinese ministers. Concerns about the country’s authoritarian leadership and record of state-sponsored human rights abuse were raised prior to the trip by Amnesty International. It urged the Scottish Government to carry out robust checks on any Chinese companies it plans to deal with.

Promising that she would not side-step the issue when challenged by Willie Rennie last month, the First Minister vowed to “bow to nobody” in her resolve to promote human rights and ethical trade worldwide and “never shy away from raising difficult issues”. She claimed to have raised human rights “very clearly” in a private meeting with Chinese Vice Premier, Hu Chunhua, but did not reveal details about what was discussed. The Scottish Lib Dem leader called for more transparency to avoid a repeat of the so-called “Scottish Shambles”, when a £10bn investment deal signed by the Scottish Government in 2016 collapsed after one of the Chinese partners, China Railway No.3 Engineering Group, was discovered to have been blacklisted by a Norwegian Oil Fund and named in an Amnesty International Report on human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The First Minister was caught up in fresh controversy when it was revealed that the day before she met with the parent company behind an application for a Chinese-owned power station in East Lothian, her government decided to take the planning proposal into its own hands. She was accused of “trampling over local democracy” and “kowtowing to Chinese special interests at the expense of local people in East Lothian”.

Overall, it was a promising but not controversy-free week – one which, perhaps, gives us glimpse of what the future holds for Scotland’s relationship with China.

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