George Osborne walking with a delegation in China
A cultural approach. George Osborne's delegation to the recent Economic and Financial Dialogue in China included leading figures from the UK’s major cultural organisations.

October 2015

This autumn may be witnessing the start of a new era in the relationship between the UK and China.

Last month saw not only the annual ‘People to People Dialogue’ between the two countries, but also the latest Economic and Financial Dialogue, led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The UK is taking a broad approach in its relations with China, including an increased focus on cultural relations. As the Chinese creative economy grows and with evidence of the effectiveness of cultural relations with the country, this approach has potentially far-reaching consequences. 

Why culture means business

The use of culture to underpin a wider economic and diplomatic drive makes sense in the context of the UK’s stature – increasingly recognised in China – as a world leader for the creative industries, as well as China’s own moves towards building a more creative, consumer-driven economy, with Chinese creative industries currently growing annually at almost 17%. For such growth to continue, cultural audiences in China will also have to expand, supporting greater co-production with strong creative countries such as the UK. With its vast and burgeoning middle class, there is every sign that such audiences will grow and develop in China. This in turn will provide growing markets for UK creative products that are already hugely popular in China, from Sherlock and NT Live, War Horse and Downton Abbey, to film and TV co-productions. Meanwhile China’s own cultural strengths are increasingly being showcased overseas, and Chinese philanthropy is following to support them. Furthermore, the number of Chinese students taking creative arts and design courses in the UK almost trebled from around 1,500 in 2008/9 to around 4,300 in 2013/14. The direct benefits to the UK economy could be very significant.

Chinese people's level of trust in people from the UK also rose significantly with the number of cultural relations activities they engaged in

There is also a wider purpose to this form of cultural diplomacy. There is evidence of a link between participation in cultural activities with another country and higher levels of trust in that country and its people, in turn leading to greater enthusiasm to do business with that country. British Council research reports show that young people from China who had been involved in cultural activities with the UK – including attending major arts exhibitions or cultural events organised by UK institutions – were 15% more likely to trust people from the UK and 8% more likely to be interested in opportunities to do business with UK people and organisations. Chinese peoples’ level of trust in people from the UK also rose significantly with the number of cultural relations activities they engaged in. This suggests potentially far-reaching indirect economic benefits to the UK from a continued focus on cultural engagement with China.

UK-China cultural relations 

The UK Government has been leading the drive to build closer cultural and people-to-people relations with China as part of on-going efforts to forge closer diplomatic and economic ties.  

2015 is the first ever UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange, delivered for the UK by the British Council. A major joint initiative, the year recognises that China’s own economic trajectory is closely aligned with the UK’s strengths in the creative industries. There is the potential for a true partnership in the knowledge economy, with potentially far-reaching economic benefits. In March, the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai brought together the creative industries of both countries to discuss deeper collaboration; and the British Council’s online hub ‘UK Now’ was launched to present the best in UK digital arts. UK art, design, photography, film and performing arts have all been showcased in China. A major Thomas Heatherwick exhibition has been touring the country throughout the summer. A co-production of the National Theatre’s War Horse has just opened in Beijing to enthusiastic audiences. Meanwhile the Chinese season in the UK has already featured performances by the Tao Dance Theatre and a performance by the Military Band of the People’s Liberation Army at the Edinburgh Tattoo.  

This September’s UK-China People to People Dialogue and Education Summit was held in London, with British Council Chief Executive Ciarán Devane as its Secretary General. The summit saw events attended by China’s most senior female politician, Vice Premier Liu Yandong, along with a delegation of 13 Chinese Ministers, and Jeremy Hunt as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative, along with other UK Ministers from the Departments of Education, Business and Culture, Media and Sport, and leading figures from the devolved administrations. The programme was designed to strengthen cooperation on issues including culture, education and sport, and resulted in agreements on all these areas being signed. One highlight was the Cultural Dialogue at Tate Britain in partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Culture, which examined channels for closer co-operation and co-production with China across the creative industries. 

A cultural approach

For the first time in recent history, the UK’s Economic and Financial Dialogue delegation, led by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Vice Premier Ma Kai, included leading figures from 12 of the UK’s most significant cultural organisations. Attending were, amongst others, Chief Executives, Directors and Chairs from Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC, the Tate, the British Library, the Southbank Centre, the British Museum and Arts Council England. At an event hosted by the British Council in Beijing, the Chancellor announced £6 million in new funding for UK cultural projects in China. This will help to showcase the breadth and depth of the UK’s cultural treasures, but also build skills and training partnerships with major Chinese institutions. The next couple of years will see major exhibitions in China, including the British Museum’s landmark ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’, the Tate’s ‘Landscapes of the Mind’ exhibition, and the British Library’s display of some of its most iconic literary treasures in China for the first time.  

The cultural relations and diplomacy leading up to President Xi’s State Visit this month augur well for the UK’s relationship with China

It is also notable that £3 million was announced for the Premier League and British Council’s joint ‘Premier Skills’ football coaching programme. This will allow more community work with schools in China, investing in sports education projects in line with China’s plans to integrate soccer into its state school curriculum and increasing the profile of the UK Premier League and the UK’s reputation as a global leader in sporting excellence. A love of football is in fact part of the shared cultural history between the two countries. China is said to have invented the game, with an early form called ‘cheju’, while the UK is recognised as the home of the rules-based sport that is so popular around the world today.  

The cultural relations and diplomacy leading up to President Xi’s State Visit this month augur well for the UK’s relationship with China. The two countries may be entering an era of closer engagement with cultural understanding and cooperation at its heart. 

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Policy Analyst and Editor 

Carma Elliot, Director British Council, China

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