Reports from China during Alex Salmond's visit
- 11 December 2011
- From the section Scotland
First Minister Alex Salmond is on his third official visit to China for a week-long mission to strengthen business, cultural and governmental links between the two nations.
BBC Scotland's political correspondent Glenn Campbell reports from Beijing on Scotland's growing cultural and trade links with China.
The most celebrated Scotsman in the east coast city of Weifang, three hours from Beijing by fast train, was an Olympic athlete.
Eric Liddell (whose story's told in Chariots of Fire) won the four hundred metres in the 1924 Paris games, before becoming a missionary in China.
He died of a brain tumour in the Japanese concentration camp in Weifang shortly before the end of the second world war.
The Chinese celebrate him, not just for his sporting achievements, but also for his selfless commitment to China and to other prisoners of war.
He also gives the country a useful bridge to the UK and Scotland as it seeks to improve international cooperation.
The director of foreign affairs for the Weifang government, Wang Hao, told me that he regards Eric Liddell as a "hero".
In Scotland, the charity founded in Liddell's name - the Eric Liddell centre - is making plans to honour his memory in the run up to London 2012.
What better way to do so, they thought, than to apply to carry the Olympic torch through Edinburgh in his name.
The charity's fundraiser, Ewan Hastings, offered to dress as Liddell for the event but had his application turned down.
An email from Lord Coe explains that "with an average of 11 nominations for every place... there simply weren't enough slots for everyone".
I'm not sure the Chinese would have missed a similar trick.
Poets and performers
China places a great deal of emphasis on the cultural side of international cooperation.
That's why the premier, Wen Jiabao started his UK tour earlier this year with a visit to Shakespeare's birthplace.
At the time, he said: "countries should respect the history of each other and the creation of their peoples if they are to build a foundation for lasting friendship".
The following month, his Ambassador to the UK, told a business audience in Glasgow there was a "need to increase mutual understanding".
If they were less polite (and the Chinese are incredibly polite) they might have said 'if you want to make money in China, get to know us better'.
Team Scotland has put quite a bit of effort into developing this side of Sino-Scottish relations this week.
The Edinburgh international festival has agreed a tie up with it's Chinese counterparts.
The First Minister signed a cultural agreement with the Chinese government which should mean more paintings, poets and performers from Scotland are seen in China and vice versa.
This also underpins a third deal to allow experts from Historic Scotland and the Glasgow school of art to digitally recreate the Eastern Qing Tombs of China's last imperial dynasty.
The First Minister calls this "digital diplomacy" a gift of thanks for the "panda diplomacy" which brought the bears to Edinburgh.
A visit to the Qing tombs reminded me that for all the hype about China and it's economic expansion, it is still a developing country.
The big cities are full of flash cars and designer labels but hundreds of millions of people still live in grinding poverty.
China's annual economic output per person is $6,120 - one eighth of the gross domestic product of the United States.
As the world's largest consumer of coal, burning three billion tonnes of the stuff each year, China also has serious pollution problems.
There was so much smog the day we went to the tombs, that the motorway was shut and we had to use bumpy back roads instead.
It was a mildly terrifying journey made worse on the return leg when the smog was so thick we had to lean out of the windows to see the road!
What made things even more worrying was that we had given a lift to a jinx.
Our passenger was a conserver of ancient monuments who has endured more than his fair share of bad luck digitally mapping heritage sites.
He came back from Mount Rushmore with a fractured skull.
He came back from India with swine flu.
And he helpfully chose to tell us this as he came back to Beijing in our car in the middle of a pea-souper!
What should have been a four hour round trip took nine long hours.
China may be the world's next superpower but it still has some distance to travel.
I probably haven't made enough of Alex Salmond's visit to the university-style campus that is Beijing's central party school.
This is where high flying officials from across China are invited to study Communist party doctrine to advance their careers.
Westerners, and most ordinary Chinese people, are not generally allowed past the armed police officers who guard the gates.
For some reason, the authorities made an exception for Scotland's First Minister and invited him to address students.
They even allowed the BBC in to film the event, which my local contacts said was a rare privilege.
It was a sensitive enough event for the Foreign Office (which gets a bit twitchy when the SNP leader does diplomacy) to send along a couple of minders.
This event and the meeting with the vice premier, inside the Forbidden City, demonstrate the extent to which China is opening up to the outside world.
There is of course much that remains closed or tightly controlled in the most populous country on the planet.
Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are blocked and locals say internet access has been more heavily restricted since the Arab uprisings.
The Chinese authorities are determined to avoid similar unrest.
Their alternative to Twitter is Weibo, a micro-blogging site which is monitored by the State.
China employs an estimated 30,000 cyber guards to maintain what's become known as the Great Firewall of China.
This is not the only form of censorship exercised here.
A former Buddist monk reports that the movie Braveheart, with Mel Gibson as William Wallace crying "freedom", is banned in Tibet.
Meet China's bagpiping braveheart, George Tian, who has played at several events promoting Scotland this week.
George has never been to Scotland but when he heard the pipes he fell in love with their sound and decided to learn how to play them.
He is largely self taught and is still learning.
You should be able to hear him in action on Radio Scotland in the coming weeks in a special programme we've made about China.
When we met for the recording, George and his kilt were the centre of attention in the lobby of the China World Hotel in Beijing.
I found him proudly showing photos of himself and the First Minister to members of the South African government!
It would be almost impossible to get by in China without either speaking Mandarin or having a good interpreter.
It's not like visiting a European country, where you can muddle through with a good phrasebook and the goodwill of locals who recall a bit of English from their schooldays.
While China is opening up to the world, it is still overwhelmingly Chinese.
I remember looking round in a busy railway station and realising that me and my camera colleague, Ian Johnson, were the only foreigners.
We would be pretty lost without Gemila, our local guide, who keeps us right on language, culture and, of course, food.
I have eaten a donkey. Not a whole one you understand, but slices of dead, cooked donkey.
I wouldn't have known a thing about it if Gemila had not translated the menu at the Chinese buffet.
I have nothing against donkeys. In fact, I quite like them - and now I can report that they taste good too.
The meat was dark, rich and textured, and delicious with garlic sauce.
I was less sure about the duck gizzards, which seem very popular here.
As is well known, the first minister is more of a curry man - but asked to name his favourite Chinese dish, he said the pork takes a bit of beating.
Something else that takes a bit of beating is China's high speed rail service linking Beijing and Shanghai with other major cities.
The bullet trains are clean, comfortable and courteously staffed, and hurtle you to your destination at almost 200 miles an hour.
There is much talk about building a similar railway line in the UK, making it possible (eventually) to travel between Scotland and London in around two-and-a-half hours.
Construction would be expensive and controversial, and for those reasons still seems a long way off.
But if the line is ever built, the first minister says it will "undoubtedly" use Chinese technology.
At least that's what he told the railway official who asked him in a question time session at the Central Party School.
It is principally up to the UK foreign office to fly the flag for Scotland around the world as part of its wider diplomatic effort.
The Scottish government supplements this with an office in Brussels and Scottish officials based in the British embassies in Washington and Beijing.
It also has a trade and investment arm, Scottish Development International, operating in 20 countries alongside the equivalent UK body.
Scotland's man in China is Philip Morgan, First Secretary (Scottish Affairs). He's paid by the Scottish government but accountable to the British ambassador.
Scottish "ambassadors" like him pre-date the election of the SNP in 2007 but the Nationalists obviously take a keen interest in who represents Scotland on the world stage and do a fair bit of it themselves.
The climate change minister, Stewart Stevenson, is in South Africa for the carbon reduction conference; the education secretary, Mike Russell, is not long back from promoting Scotland in India and the first minister is in China for the third time in as many years.
But it's not just devolved ministers who clock up air miles for their country.
The Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, was doing his bit for business in Brazil last week, where he suggested that the UK's global network gives Scotland more international clout than it might otherwise enjoy.
Alex Salmond is enjoying a fair amount of attention from the Chinese media and loving every minute of it.
Although he might have been a bit concerned to see himself pictured in the China Daily next to an article about Afghanistan.
The headline read "SCO can play 'bigger role' in Afghanistan", which is an overseas entanglement the first minister could probably do without.
Fortunately, the SCO in question is not Scotland but the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, whatever that is.
Mr Salmond also features in the overseas edition of the People's Daily (circulation 81,674,460) and has given an interview to the Gordon Brewer of Pheonix TV.
To be fair, that broadcast will probably be seen by a slightly larger audience than Newsnight Scotland!
The first minister's team reckons he's being seen, heard or read by hundreds of millions of people.
Not that any of them get a vote, certainly not in their own country, never mind the next Holyrood election.
China does not do democracy, and campaigners describe it's human rights record as deplorable.
Amnesty International says the Chinese authorities routinely suppress free speech and execute more people each year that the rest of the world put together.
The charity fears that in the rush to secure friendship and market share in the world's second largest economy, western countries and companies turn a blind eye to this less cuddly side of Communism.
Amnesty has urged the Scottish government not to let giant pandas or the giant economic opportunities in China "distract" from human rights abuses.
Alex Salmond says he never misses the chance to raise reform with China's leaders by discussing with them the ideas of the Scottish economist, Adam Smith.
In fact, he gave a lecture based on Smith's thinking to a class of students at Beijing's Central Party School, which educates communist officials.
He called for human rights and development to be linked in the fight against climate change.
And there's a good chance the assembled audience got the message because he started the speech three times to overcome failures in the translation equipment.
This is Alex Salmond's third visit to China as first minister and he seems to have had a diplomatic upgrade.
When he came to Beijing two years ago, he had talks with the minister for quarantine.
This time he met the man tipped to succeed premier Wen Jiabao when the Chinese Communist Party changes its leaders next year.
The coming man is vice-premier, Li Keqiang, who visited Scotland in January.
He recalled the "vivid memory" of drinking whisky and singing Auld Lang Syne at Edinburgh castle.
When Alex Salmond came to thank him for the pandas, Mr Li said he hoped Sweetie and Sunshine "bring you sunshine everyday". If only.
Engaging with China has brought more than pandas to Scotland.
The whisky industry celebrated the Chinese government's decision to improve protection for the Scotch brand and sales are soaring.
This year, China opened it's vast market of 1.35 billion consumers to imports of Scottish salmon which are already worth £20m.
The Scottish government is now seeking new opportunities.
The first minister discussed renewable energy, healthcare, water management and infrastructure with vice-premier Li.
They also talked about "aviation connectivity" or direct flights to you and me.
And here's the progress. The state owned airline, Hainan, will send a delegation to Scotland early next year, to check out the airports and recommend a route.
On the plane from Amsterdam, I read the Scottish government's international policy framework, which I accept was a bit keen (I also watched the movie Contagion, which was a mistake, because now anytime someone coughs I think I'm going to die).
Anyway, the international document sets out the economic case for government supporting businesses that want to trade overseas and for seeking to attract foreign direct investment and tourists from places like China and the US.
It also suggests we can learn a thing or two from the "economic and educational success of our comparators in the Arc of Prosperity (Norway, Finland, Iceland, Ireland and Denmark)".
It was written in 2008 before the international banking crisis and it seems the role models the first minister now chooses have changed.
In an article for the Economist publication "The World in 2012" (it was a long flight) Alex Salmond airbrushes Ireland and Iceland from his aspirations.
He still praises Denmark, Norway and Finland but they are now listed after the "dynamic" regions of "Catalonia and the Basque country, which enjoy degrees of fiscal autonomy from Madrid".
It's a reminder that Mr Salmond intends to offer more devolved power short of independence as an option in his referendum.
Devolution max, as it's sometimes called, could put Holyrood in charge of almost everything except defence and foreign affairs.
There are already lots of Scottish firms doing business in China including RBS, Scottish and Southern Energy and Aggreko.
China is investing in Scotland too. The Grangemouth oil refinery is now a joint venture between Ineos and Petro-China and Chinese companies like Lenovo and Bank of China have offices in Scotland.
But travelling between the two countries is not as easy as it might be.
To get to China, you have to fly somewhere else first.
The cheapest deal I could find was with KLM from Edinburgh to Beijing via Amsterdam. The return leg's with Air France via Paris.
Two years ago, the Scottish Parliament's external relations committee urged the government to "drive forward" the creation of a direct air route.
It hasn't happened yet but in the past week the cabinet minister, Bruce Crawford, told MSPs "progress" was being made.
Who knows, maybe signs of progress will emerge while the first minister is in China. Watch this space.
If there was an award for government public relations officers, who would win the prize for claiming ownership of the pandas?
Let me describe a sequence of emails sent to my inbox.
1345 Secretary of State for Scotland comment on arrival of Pandas in Scotland.
1347 First Minister to thank Chinese Vice-Premier as Pandas arrive in Scotland.
1405 Giant Pandas arrive in Scotland. Deputy First Minister welcomes gift from China.
1415 Arrival of Pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo.
So, would you give the prize to Michael Moore's 1345 team for being first and claiming the pandas as a symbol of UK world status?
Or would you give it to Alex Salmond's 1347 lot, for placing their guy at the centre of a story happening 5,000 miles from where he is and for claiming the pandas as a symbol of China's "great and growing" relationship with Scotland?
Perhaps you'd prefer to recognise the 1405 effort on behalf of Nicola Sturgeon for welcoming a gift from China that was not necessarily addressed to her.
Or what about the Foreign Office officials, who spent a little extra time on behalf of Nick Clegg to refine the diplomatic language.
They announced the arrival of pandas, not to Scotland or the UK but to Edinburgh Zoo, which can presumably be Scottish, British or a bit of both.
For the avoidance of doubt, China did its panda diplomacy with the UK government but the fact that the bears will live in Scotland for the 10 years will almost certainly help the Scottish government in its direct dealings with Beijing.
It is always annoying when you travel abroad and discover that you've left something important behind.
In my case, I packed the wrong phone charger.
In the first minister's case, there was nothing for him to wear to the Beijing Caledonian Society's St Andrew's day ball.
His hotel offered to order a suitable outfit from Shanghai. But that would have arrived days late.
An improvising civil servant haggled with a tailor at the Beijing silk market who produced a made-to-measure jacket and red tartan-like trews within a few hours.
And that's how Alex Salmond overcame his China crisis.
At the ball itself, it became clear that expatriate Scots choose China for very different reasons.
The chieftan, Ewan Smith, said he wanted to be in the "engine room of an economic transformation that's pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty".
His friend apparently relocated because you don't pay tips in China.
If Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, then what are the Chinese getting in return for the two giant pandas they're lending us?
Yes, there's goodwill and good publicity, not to mention the rent of around £700,000 a year. But that's not all...
By the time Sweetie and Sunshine touch down in Edinburgh, Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, will be in Beijing.
Mr Salmond has joked that it is a "two for one" arrangement and when asked if that was a fair swop, he said: "probably Scotland's got the best of the deal".
The pandas will be entertaining visitors to Edinburgh Zoo for up to 10 years. The first minister has less than 10 days to impress his Chinese hosts as he seeks to strengthen trade and cultural links with the People's Republic.