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Represenative from Qingdao in Hampshire to explore possible links
It is one of China’s most dramatic cities. With a population of 8.5 million people, a huge economy, a growing port and tourism industry, Qingdao is a pearl on the Pacific coast of the world’s fastest growing economy.
It is just the sort of place that the Government in London hopes will open its doors and welcome British business. When Chancellor George Osborne, in China this week with London mayor Boris Johnson to promote British interests, imagines strong ties with the Asian Tiger, he would be far pushed to find a city with more potential than Qingdao.
And the fact Qingdao just happens to have been twinned with Southampton for several years should have placed the Hampshire city region in pole position for exploiting multi-million pound links between its citizens.
After all, both cities are ports, looking to the sea for much of their trade, have vibrant hinterlands and easy access to their nation’s capitals.
But instead of enjoying strong and flourishing ties between the two cities; trade, political and cultural links have more or less ceased to exist in recent years.
What’s more, the decision to cut those links has been taken on this side of the world and, say representatives from Qingdao, to the dismay of the Chinese.
Now Qingdao has taken the initiative and sent an official representative to spend two months here in Southampton to re-connect with the city region and build bridges.
The Qingdao Municipal Government has sent Jia Wang, vice-director of the Qingdao European and African Office, to Southampton to help local businesses and the Hampshire Chambers of Commerce regenerate former links.
Miss Wang has been staying in the city and meeting Hampshire Chamber of Trade and business leaders, as well as local colleges, the universities, the region’s airports and the Oceano-graphic Centre in Southampton. The aim, she explained during a visit to the Daily Echo, was to convince the region that Qingdao was open for busineses.
“Qingdao has lots of similar interests with Southampton and we would hope that we can create very strong business and cultural links,” said Miss Wang.
‘Enthusiastic’ “Everyone I have met during my visit here has been enthusiastic and welcoming.”
Miss Wang added that officials in Qingdao understood why links may have been weakened during the recent harsh economic climate and that was not a barrier to re-establishing those ties in the future.
Until the recession struck Southampton had enjoyed strong political ties with Qingdao, but commercial links had never taken off.
It was under the previous Conservative administration in the city that the annual visits by politicians and council officers had been cut because, claimed the Tories, nothing tangible was resulting from the ties.
Leader of the city council at the time, Councillor Royston Smith told the Echo: “I went and visited as leader of the council. When public money is used to have that friendly relationship, you need to have something for the public from it.
“My job was to go over there and get something for the people that paid to keep that relationship going.
“We didn’t get anything. The last straw was when I went to a factory and was told by someone there they had opened an office in Godalming. That’s when I made the decision that we would be friendly with them but wouldn’t invite delegates over twice or three times a year.
“The Chinese are good at building relationships. But on their terms they invest where they get the best return.”
Whether future links with Qingdao will prove more profitable for Southampton remains to be seen, but certainly China’s latest approaches have been welcomed by Hampshire’s business and political leaders.
Miss Wang’s visit to Hampshire was preceded by a recent business delegation to Qingdao by business leaders this year and more are planned for 2014 backed by Hampshire Chamber of Commerce.
Behind a lot of the recent resurgence in contact between the two cities is former Southampton mayor Lib Dem Councillor John Slade who has maintained personal ties with officials in China since he visited Qingdao during his year in office.
“It is such a shame that we went through this time when we seemed to back off Qingdao. It is a fantastic city with so much going on and the Chinese are certainly keen to have strong links with us,” said Cllr Slade.
“It makes so much sense really. Qingdao is a port, is the capital of a region the size of France and is developing at an incredible pace. There are all kinds of opportunities for us to work together. They even have a boat show – and an amazing beer festival. There are even plans to open a fish and chip shop there as well as typical English places as a cream tea shop and a pub.”
City council leader Simon Letts said he has an open mind about future links, as long as it provides financial benefits for Southampton.
He said: “If we feel there is a benefit to the city we will work with the Chamber of Commerce to develop overseas links.
“If someone comes to me and can demonstrate that we can generate jobs and inward investment through a link we will look at it.”
Whether Southampton is able to re-kindle its links with Qingdao and this time they will lead to tangible economic benefits for the citizens living in and around both cities remains to be seen.
But if Hampshire cannot make ties between our the two nations work with its already historic relationship with the Far East country then it is difficult to see how any other British city would do any better.
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