Thistle and Bamboo

Throughout my studies in the ‘Made In China’ module I have developed a profound interest in the growing consumer market in China and the economic, social and cultural shifts that are taking place there. China aims to move away from being a predominantly production-based economy towards a more consumer-driven one, a transition the rest of the world cannot possibly ignore; but how will the West respond? And what impact will these changes have on a country such as Scotland?


Scotland has made clear that it wants to engage with the People’s Republic of China and is extremely eager to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the East. Despite the obvious disparities in demographics, geography and wealth, Scotland has plenty to offer China in the form of knowledge and skills, heritage, academic excellence, business opportunities and luxury goods. China has recognised this fact. The arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the two pandas from China now at Edinburgh Zoo, pays testimony to the growing friendship between Scotland and China. With hopes that the pandas will breed, they serve not only as a symbol of friendship, but as a sign of things to come; a potent symbol of fertility and growth between the two nations. This research will explore the emerging opportunities and the implications they may have on both nations, particularly in economic, social and cultural terms; and, by looking at the history between Scotland and China, it will help develop an understanding of how this alliance was established, providing insights into sino-scots relations past and present.


Evidence will be drawn from not only articles and published texts, as listed in the bibliography, but also from primary research in the form of interviews and visits to key players; for example The Confucius Institute for Scotland in Edinburgh whose aim is to promote educational, economic and cultural ties between Scotland and China. In addition, companies who either export to China or import goods will be of particular interest: Glenglassaugh Distillery (whisky), Highland Spring (bottled water) and Carloway Mill (Harris tweed) have all agreed to an interview, thus far. Furthermore, Bill Thomson OBE of Clyde Blowers (engineering/renewables) has agreed to discuss Scotland’s developing relations with China. This is of particular interest as Bill Thomson was awarded his status as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to British exports, mainly to China, and was a Director and Vice-President of the China-Britain Business Council for ten years. By discussing key issues relating to current business practices and how they have developed, this research will seek to examine the opportunities that lie ahead and the ways in which they can be exploited for the mutual benefit of both nations.


Other literature examined will provide useful insights into the conflicting views on China’s economic future. The Scottish Government’s ‘China Strategy’ has outlined a five year plan for engagement between Scotland and the People’s Republic of China. This paper provides up to date figures on China’s economy and its stance in the global market as well as detailed information on its current motives, drawing attention to those that present opportunities for Scotland in particular. It highlights that China’s growth rate of 9.2% in 2011 was exceptional by world standards: China’s GDP has tripled in the last decade and it is estimated that China has contributed up to a third of global growth. As a result, the government’s prevailing view of China is of an economic juggernaut set to make the twenty-first century its own. However, Will Hutton, author of The writing on the wall: China and the West in the 21st century (2008), warns instead that “China is running up against a set of daunting challenges from within that could derail its rise and deliver a crippling shock to the global economy.” Hutton’s analysis of China suggests that global peace and prosperity are dependent on China’s successful transition; he therefore argues that Britain, Europe and the United States have a vital stake in ensuring a collapse does not happen. This research will examine the nature of these challenges and how the west can assist in overcoming them to benefit all who are involved. Fortunately, the Scottish Government is committed to developing a long term relationship with China based on shared values, partnership and trust with the belief that “strengthening this bilateral relationship will bring substantial benefits to both countries. China will be offered assistance and support for its economic and social reform programme. Scotland will be looking to China for opportunities to help support its economic recovery and future prosperity.”


Research suggests that Scotland’s business prospects in China are strong: Scotland already has a strong identity in Chinese society and, as a brand, Scotland is therefore very powerful and this can certainly be capitalised on. China views Scotland as a brand heavily associated with quality, innovation, creativity and world-leading capability across all key sectors. These are valuable and desirable traits which China is now striving to replicate and the Scottish Government hopes to provide assistance with China’s transition by promoting this. In Scotland, China will find a country that “values and harnesses its knowledge and talent with a strong track record in creativity and innovation, especially in the development of new energies; life sciences; creative industries; financial services; and an abundance of premium food and drink.” They will also find a country that “possesses a distinct heritage, one that is proud of its history and culture; possesses an education system that has a well deserved reputation for academic excellence; has universities that are willing to engage together, and with international partners to undertake joint research projects; is open for business and is a competitive and ideal strategic destination for inward investment within Europe; and has a strong reputation as world class host for major sporting and cultural events, such as the Ryder Cup, Commonwealth Games and Edinburgh Festivals.” Further research will be carried out to discover what is being done to ensure that the targets set by the government’s China Strategy are met.


It is interesting to note that in the past China also left its mark on Scotland. Most people associate the China trade with silks, porcelain and other knick-knacks; in actual fact these were a mere by-product of a trade in necessities and were only ever bought by those who could afford them. The real bulk of the trade came in the form of more practical, everyday items such as tea, medicinal drugs, plants, dyestuffs and foodstuffs. Susan Leiper, author of Precious Cargo: Scots and the China trade, believes “the small amount of chinoiserie in Scotland is but a reflection of the main thrust of Scotland’s involvement in the China trade… The import of rhubarb root led to Scotland’s rhubarb growing craze and the making of patent medicines such as Gregory’s Powder. The tea trade encouraged Scottish silversmiths and then potters to make equipment for the tea table, it stimulated Scotland’s shipbuilding industry, and it has left us with some its oldest merchants still in existence.” Therefore, it is important to acknowledge Scotland’s past involvement with China and the influence that had on Scottish culture as well as examining what Scotland had to offer them. Initially, the Chinese were not interested in Scottish goods and mostly took payments in gold and silver. Tensions rose, war broke out and “with her superior naval prowess Britain was victorious and forced China to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.” This opened up China and allowed more freedom to trade, albeit against the will of the Chinese people. But more importantly, it also allowed Scottish missionaries to travel further inland and they soon became “exporters and importers of knowledge… Two of their most important ‘exports’ were education and western medicine.” However, these were not the only advancements in society that the Scots played a part in. As Leiper points out, “The need for a bank to serve both traders and the Hong Kong government was becoming evident.” Thomas Sutherland, a Scot, began to realise that ‘one of the very simplest things in the world would be to start a bank in China more or less founded upon Scottish principles’. With a capital of five million dollars and a provisional committee of fifteen, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company was launched in March 1865. Having only scratched the surface in terms of the sino-scots history, this research will further explore Scotland’s involvement in the China trade and the effects it had on life back home.


Sino-scots relations continued to go from strength to strength until the communist party took over in 1949 and nearly all foreigners were forced to leave. However, over the last few decades, China has re-opened its doors to the western world and the results have been astonishing; and, bearing in mind the state of today’s economy, it seems the opportunities presented by this development are too great to miss. China’s influence on Scotland’s own development is an important aspect of this newly emerging alliance. In the past, new and exciting goods were introduced to our shores, some of which are now embedded at the heart of our culture; and some of which sparked waves of innovation and human progress. In return, we shared our skills, our knowledge and our experience. Perhaps Scotland and China are heading towards a new period of collaboration in which ideas, experience, skills and the goods that they produce will be shared, bringing growth and prosperity to both nations and a cultural shift based on friendship and trust.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s