The Chinese economy might be stuttering but airlift between the UK and cities across the country is nevertheless increasing, says Colin Ellson


Writing 1,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” It’s advice as pertinent today for UK companies seeking a foothold in China as it was for the merchants of the Middle Kingdom in the days of yore.

The watchword then, as now, is patience, backed today by a longterm strategy for tackling the world’s largest economy. It has a population of 1.3 billion, 160 cities of more than one million inhabitants, and is a fastgrowing consumer market, forecast to become the biggest on earth for luxury goods by 2020.

There is almost universal optimism about China’s prospects. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, has upgraded its growth forecast for the country in 2017 to 6.5%, 0.3 percentage points higher than last October.

This is based on IMF findings that consumption is holding up, factories have pulled out of a four-year streak of deflation, and overall growth is expected to meet the Chinese government’s target

While it is equally optimistic about the opportunities for Sino-UK trade, the Department for International Trade (DIT) outlines the unique challenges facing British companies. These include the fact that large parts of the economy are still closed to full foreign participation; strong competition from well-resourced state-owned enterprises; finding and retaining the right skills in the local workforce; language barriers; and a complex business culture.

Nevertheless, based on current UK exports to China, ranging from electrical machinery and equipment and mineral fuels and oils, to vehicles, plastics and copper, the DIT says there is huge potential for expansion, especially in consumer goods and products. Li Ruogu, former chairman of the Export- Import Bank of China inevitably brings up the subject of Brexit, now preoccupying Prime Minister Theresa May, along with the forthcoming General Election in June.

“Brexit will pave a new path for free trade between China and the UK,” says Li, “despite fears about rising anti-free trade forces in the current global environment.

“The UK may already be a more open market than the EU”, he adds, citing inefficiencies in the EU agricultural policies and its dispute with China over steel exports as examples of protectionism in the EU.

Li said China will be focusing on market reforms and the restructuring of state-owned enterprises in its next phase of development, opening up new opportunities with the UK in terms of financing. In fact, the value of British trade to China is expected to have expanded by an unbelievable 115% between 2016 and 2026.

This will be boosted by Theresa May’s visit to China later this year – provided she is still in office after the June election.

Flying to several destinations in China means a relatively simple longhaul flight from the UK, although it means spending upwards of 10 hours in the air. There is also an extensive choice of airlines flying to China via their various hubs.

To this list of travel options can be added the train. Relax, it is not intended for passengers but to boost British trade with China, whose rail links will eventually cover Asia and the whole of Europe.

The weekly freight service was launched on New Year’s day, arriving at the vast London Gateway freight complex 18 days later with 68 containers of items such as clothes and retail goods. The 600-metre-long train later left London bound for Yiwu on China’s east coast laden with 32 containers holding whisky, soft drinks and baby products, all UK products cherished in China.

Make the journey and, hopefully, your return from China after a business trip, laden down with orders from new contacts, will be equally joyous.

Non-stop flights

From London Heathrow, British Airways flies to Beijing daily, Air China twice-daily. Hainan Airlines serves the capital from Manchester five times a week.

There are no direct flights from the UK to the capital of China’s Sichuan province. One-stop options from London include China Eastern via Shanghai and China Southern via Guangzhou

Tianjin Airlines has launched a twice-weekly service from London Gatwick to Chongqing, using an Airbus A330- 200. The same aircraft is deployed on its new twice-weekly Gatwick route to Xian, home to the Terracotta Army.

China Southern Airlines flies from Heathrow to the port city twice daily.

From Heathrow, British Airways flies to Hong Kong twice daily, Cathay Pacific five times a day, and Virgin daily. Cathay also offers a daily service from Gatwick and five services per week from Manchester.

From Heathrow, BA serves China’s largest city 10 times a week, with Virgin Atlantic and China Eastern both flying daily.

One-stop alternatives

With 68 non-stop flights from the UK to the destinations in our survey, the bewildering array of one-stop alternatives is only worth considering if you have sound business reasons for visiting the gateways en route or you're flying from a regional airport. From Birmingham, for example, Hong Kong can be reached via Istanbul, Munich, Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Other international transit points en route to China include Helsinki (Finnair flies to six cities across China) and the Middle Eastern hubs of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.