Three Questions with… Tim Cullen
Tim Cullen MBE visited UCSD in October of last year just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was wrapping up an official state visit to the UK. Tim Cullen is the Chairman and founder of TCA Limited, an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, former Chief Spokesman for the World Bank, and Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), among many other things. We were thrilled to have Mr. Cullen share his views on China’s development, the UK-China relationship, and much more. Below is our exclusive interview with Tim Cullen.
Photo from Mr. Cullen’s TED talk available here.
Mr. Cullen, you are still very optimistic about the opportunities for business in China. Why?
Some people are saying there may be a total collapse of the Chinese economy. I don’t think that’s likely. I think there’s too much strength in the underlying economy.
I come from Britain. I think that our attitudes towards China at a business level and at a government level are quite pragmatic and quite optimistic. What hits the headlines in Britain are the people who want to attack the government for whatever they do anyway, but also who feel that trying to be too friendly with the Chinese is not healthy and it’ll come back and bite you. There’s a lot of cynicism there.
But I am optimistic because while the Chinese economy is slowing, it was growing at unsustainable rates anyway. The question is whether there can be a soft landing. I think that events in the summer suggest that the management of that soft landing has had a few false starts. I really don’t really buy the idea that there’s incompetence in economic and financial management.
I think it’s more that the management of news—in a country where there is not transparency as far as news is concerned—is just not very well handled in China. Some people are saying there may be a total collapse of the Chinese economy. I don’t think that’s likely. I think there’s too much strength in the underlying economy.
China has to undertake an awful lot more reforms in lots of ways—not allowing people to live and work in different places and get pensions—all of those rules are obviously going to have to change. There are lots of challenges that China is facing, but China is going through a difficult transition to more consumption and services-led growth rather than heavy manufacturing and a focus on exports. There are plenty of potential international partners outside China who can help it with that transition, so I am broadly optimistic.
What is the UK-China relationship compared to the US-China relationship and how do you see it going forward?
This relationship can certainly grow and grow. Our government would like it to. Certainly British business interests would very much like it to. There’s immense interest in China amongst British business.
I was asked a question in an interview I did in London on Chinese television at the Start of President Xi’s visit about whether the different positions the US and the UK had taken on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and other differences with the US, were going to lead to a collapse of the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. I answered very robustly that that relationship is so strong that there’s no way that decision is going to have any long-term damage to that relationship. I think that’s true.
The US and the UK are in many ways joined at the hip. They’re very, very close. We speak the same language and we’ve been allies for a long time. I don’t think there’s any threat to that. With all of the things that were announced in the UK during Xi Jinping’s visit, I think the UK is getting itself in a position where it can be genuinely a real partner with China.
George Osborne, our Chancellor, has said to China we want you to recognize that the UK is your best trading partner in the West, your best friend in the West. They really mean to do that. We can anticipate the Conservative Party is likely to be the party in power for quite some time. George Osborne, the person who is the biggest fan of China—he loves China, his daughter’s learning Mandarin, his mother lived in China for a bit, he backpacked around China—he’s got a personal commitment to China.
There are a lot of things that are only at an embryo stage at the moment that the UK is planning with China. So I think there’s still a lot to run. This relationship can certainly grow and grow. Our government would like it to. Certainly British business interests would very much like it to. There’s immense interest in China amongst British business.
Now the question for the Chinese side is how do they feel about the British? People are saying, “They’re going to treat you like dirt because you kowtowed to them.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m therefore fairly optimistic. I think this relationship is going to last a long time and it will be very productive for both sides.
We both need it. Britain is phenomenally good in financial and other services and it’s also very good in consumer goods and various areas of technology. We’ve got a lot of things the Chinese want. A company like Siemens has been in China for something like more than 100 years. They were very much involved in building up great deal of infrastructure, engineering, hardware, and things like that. Germany has done very well with China and they will continue to, I’m sure. They’re going to keep growing their relationship, but they’re not as strong in things like financial services as we are. We will provide things to China, they will reciprocate, so it will be a two-way street.
Thinking about the role Hong Kong played for China as a window out into the world for many years, do you see China using the UK as a way into US or European markets in a deeper way?
If we’re in the EU and we’re very friendly with America, that’s very helpful to the Chinese.
It could be. I sure hope the UK sorts out its problems with the European Union. The EU certainly needs to be reformed. I hope David Cameron is successful in getting some reforms. Quite a lot of the other countries—the Nordics, Germany—they would like to see reforms as well. At the moment there are horrible soundings, some of the polls say we might leave the EU, which would be an utter disaster. If we’re in the EU and we’re very friendly with America, that’s very helpful to the Chinese. They would see us a friend of court in helping those other relationships.
Can China be brought into the US-led international order peacefully, or will there have to be major changes to the status quo?
China has become much more a player and an integrated member of the global community, and I think that will carry on.
I can remember, back in 1980, when I was working for the World Bank and the PRC took over the membership for China at the Bank. I can remember the days when young Chinese people were not allowed to travel and study abroad, where we saw very few Chinese tourists, where you wouldn’t have imagined the Chinese hosting two Olympics within 20 years of each other. China has become much more a player and an integrated member of the global community, and I think that will carry on. What I don’t know is to what extent they are going to adapt the way they are to a model which Washington likes better. I just don’t know.
Edited by Peter Larson