Tristram Hunt: Helping China develop industry could create jobs in Potteries
ARMED with nothing but a bottle of Chivas whisky in a Wade flagon and a letter of introduction from the Lord Mayor, I headed out last week on a one-man trade mission to the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, porcelain capital of the world.
Paying my way was the UK-China leadership forum, which meant a three-day stop off in Beijing to begin with. Well, I thought it was Beijing. However, the smog was so terrible it was difficult to make out where we were. Older readers will recall the Potteries before the Clean Air Act, and this was exactly what Beijing felt like. With the terrible mix of coal-dust and car fumes making the filth just as deadly.
The capital's deadly haze provided a good scene-setter for our bi-lateral discussions, as contemporary China tries to rebalance its economy.
If the UK is hoping to reduce its reliance on financial services, gear up its exports, and revive manufacturing, China is hoping to do the opposite by growing domestic demand, increasing its service economy, and reducing its export dependency.
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That means a bit less of the break-neck expansion that has filled the Beijing air with killer particles.
For a country so complicated and caricatured as China, it is always useful simply to hear their view of the world.
And if, on occasions, their interventions felt scripted by the Communist Party high command, the Chinese contributors nonetheless showed how the country is coming to terms with the global responsibility its economic might entails.
After all the talk, time for action as I flew two hours south-west to China's answer to the Potteries. There have been pottery kilns around Jingdezhen for thousands of years, but they started making fine china here in the early 13th century, using clay from the nearby village of kaolin.
And from the moment you arrive you know you are in a ceramic city, huge billboards advertise vases, the lamp posts are encased in earthenware, and a fine dust seems to cover the roads. For all the foreignness it felt familiar.
Mr Lei Jun, deputy director of the Jingdezhen Municipal Porcelain Bureau, explained to me how the city's potteries had grown thanks to its clean water, nearby clay reserves, and protective circle of mountains, which attracted skilled artisans from the warring north.
'As white as jade, as thin as paper, as bright as a mirror, as resonant as a chime,' was the reputation Jingdezhen ceramics gained for itself through the Ming and Qing dynasties. It would take years for Josiahs Spode and Wedgwood to crack Jingdezhen's secret of porcelain production back in Staffordshire.
Today, the firing and glazing continues and Jingdezhen production accounts for some £800million of sales, with exports to the UK notching up around £12 million. The pot banks I saw were big, clean, new-build factories churning out millions of pieces, helpfully subsidised by low wages, gas prices, and rates.
But increasingly these products are destined for the growing domestic market, as the newly urban Chinese seek to display their prosperity by buying new tableware and artefacts.
Of course, the city officials had all heard of Stoke-on-Trent, but contacts with Meissen, Limoges, and Delft were much further advanced. Yet what was encouraging was just how keen they were to rectify that – with stronger cultural, economic and government ties between the cities.
So, cutting to the chase, what job opportunities might there be for Stoke? First of all, more exports from our heritage brands.
They knew Wedgwood and Royal Doulton and just a bit more expansion into the Chinese market could mean hundreds of jobs (in Stoke-on-Trent, please, not Indonesia).
Then comes design and innovation, as a great deal of their ware looks old-fashioned.
Thirdly, given the systems run by some of the plants, an introduction to the kind of factory efficiencies now the norm in Stoke.
And, with that, all our environmental expertise in terms of heat savings, recycling, water treatment, and renewables. This is a market opportunity which – unlike in the old days – does not need to come at the expense of Stoke jobs. Indeed, it should create them.
None of which makes doing business in China easy. It is a long way away with a bad reputation for intellectual property rights and tricky joint venture partnerships. But it is going to be an economy and market we ignore at our peril.
And, hopefully, that Highland nectar swilling inside of Wade's finest Stoke flagon has given us an opening that might be worth pursuing. Gan Bei, or cheers!