Britain introduces new visa for Chinese to attract tourists and businessmen
Chancellor moves to improve relations with Beijing after rift over Dalai Lama
British Chancellor George Osborne today heralded the “next big step” in Britain’s relationship with Beijing when he unveiled a new visa system to make it easier for Chinese business leaders and rich tourists to visit the UK.
In a sign of Downing Street’s determination to reset relations with Beijing, which unofficially downgraded Britain’s status after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama last year, the finance minister told an audience in the Chinese capital that no country in the west is more keen to attract Chinese investment than Britain.
Osborne, who began a five-day trade mission to China yesterday, told students at Beijing University: “I don’t want us to try to resist your economic progress, I want Britain to share in it.
“And I want, this week, us all to take the next big step in the relationship between Britain and China. Because more jobs and investment in China mean more jobs and investment in Britain. And that equals better lives for all.”
As a first step the finance minister announced that Britain will make it easier for Chinese business leaders to visit the UK by introducing a 24-hour “super priority” visa service.
In the biggest step, Osborne announced a separate pilot scheme that will allow selected Chinese travel agents to apply for UK visas simply by submitting the application form used for the EU Schengen visa.
The scheme is aimed specifically at the high-end tourism market, after figures showed that wealthy Chinese tourists are not bothering to apply for a UK visa after applying for a Schengen visa, which allows them to visit 22 out of the 28 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
Ministers were understood to be alarmed when one study found that Chinese tourists were buying vastly higher numbers of expensive designer handbags in Paris than in London. Osborne said of the new visa systems: “These changes will streamline and simplify the visa application process for Chinese visitors, while ensuring the system is strong and secure. This is good news for British business and tourism.”
The Foreign Office has no difficulty with the relaxed visa system, which will be administered through its embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai and other high-growth cities.
But concerns have been voiced to the chancellor and the prime minister from within the Foreign Office that Britain needs to tread with care in the light of China’s human rights record and its aggressive cyber-attacks.
Cameron is understood to have heard the Foreign Office’s concerns with sympathy. But he is determined to open a new chapter in Britain’s relations with China after declaring that the “Bric”countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - would be a priority. He has led two trade missions to India but has visited China only once as prime minister, three years ago.
Ed Davey, the energy and climate change minister, who has recently returned from Beijing, spoke yesterday of a “massive Chinese investment” worth tens of billions of pounds in nuclear power and other sources of energy in Britain.
Davey told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 that there would also be major energy investments from Japan and South Korea. The China General Nuclear Power Group has been in talks with EDF Energy about taking a stake of up to 49% in the deal to build a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.
Osborne’s trip - in which he is being accompanied in part by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and four other government ministers - is designed to pave the way for a long-awaited trade mission to China by the prime minister.
Cameron was forced to abandon a visit to China earlier this year when Beijing punished him for meeting the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, at St Paul’s Cathedral in May last year with Nick Clegg.
The prime minister abandoned tentative plans for a trip to China in April after Beijing indicated that he was unlikely to be granted meetings with senior figures. The UK government said no plans had been finalised and the new Chinese leadership, which only took over in March, needed time to bed down.
The Osborne and Cameron trips, which have been pencilled in for the autumn for some months, have been the subject of intense negotiations in Whitehall. The chancellor is said by some ministerial sources to be adopting a gung-ho approach and is keen to explore every opportunity to boost trade links with China. “With George it all comes to pounds, shillings and pence at the end of the day,” said one ministerial source.
Britain’s nervousness about the Dalai Lama was highlighted when Johnson declined on five occasions on Sky News to say whether he would like to meet Tibet’s spiritual leader. On the fifth occasion an exasperated mayor told Dermot Murnaghan: “This is the fifth time, I’m coming up for air again, Dermot, I’m just repeating that it’s not my job as mayor to insert myself into controversial areas of international dispute. My job is to promote the interests of the city.”
In his speech Osborne said: “There are some in the west who see China growing and they are nervous. They think of the world as a cake - and the bigger the slice that China takes, the smaller the slice that they will get. I totally and utterly reject that pessimistic view. If we make the whole cake bigger, then all our peoples will benefit. That should be the basis of our relationship with China.”