Friday, 12 September 2008


I recently attended a dinner party, which was hosted by a very famous broadcasting company. They were celebrating a successful Beijing Olympics coverage, and for some – a farewell to China.
After 3 or so weeks in the country, (many for the first time) they had gained the irritating view that they understood the complexities of this extremely complex and mysterious land, and that they could expel their beliefs with the confidence of a local inhabitant to all and sundry.

Firstly Beijing during the Olympics was probably as far from reality as you can get. A bit like landing in a working class street during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations or the marriage of Charles and Diana, anyone visiting the UK for the first time during this period would have thought we were all kind, generous, happy, welcoming, and completely patriotic – if they had arrived several weeks earlier or later – maybe a different experience would have been had? Beijing was a bit like this – a street party for all comers to enjoy (as long as they were from the Chinese Middle classes or foreign), a party town, brightly decorated with flags, clean streets, painted signs and manicured green areas. People were on their best behaviours, tolerant of visitors and charitable to strangers, Christ even the taxi drivers wore shirts and ties.

Secondly, no one can really understand a place, its people, its culture, its history, and its philosophy in such a short period. Of course we all fall into this trap when on holiday – or at least I know I do!

I only have to be in a sunny beach side resort for a few days and I start to believe that I understand the local culture, respect the traditions and customs – 8 days into a holiday and I’m looking at property prices, wondering how I can give up the rat race to rent deck chairs out on the nearest beach – oblivious of course to any hidden social, political or environmental considerations that disappear under the protected and surreal atmosphere of sunbathing, swimming, restaurants on the beach, and wearing shorts and open toe sandals.

So given this, I am normally very patient with this kind of conversation from ‘newbies’. After meeting your 10,000th person who knows all about the country you live in you adopt a skill I refer to as “hearing without listening”. So I was surprised when something really upset me during the conversation I was having with this particular women. I wont embarrass her or me in releasing her name, but this was the anchor lady from a UK TV News program, a very famous, well educated, well dressed, well travelled, Porsche Driving (That may give the game away to people who know her) alpha female – the type that would eat you alive, and leave most men in a jelly like state after her whip lashing tongue had finished destroying any male ego you had the audacity to possess. She was like a Chinese Moon cake (I will explain in a later Blog) tempting and attractive on the outside, only to find a strong, spicy, and pungent filling on the inside.

She berated me on my reasons for living in China, explaining that by living here I was outwardly supporting an oppressive, violent and dictatorial establishment. That by paying individual and corporate tax I was directly supporting the murder of innocent people whose only crime was to disagree with the single political party strategy.

She suggested that I was directly funding the oppression of Tibet, and the continued segregation of ethnic minorities in this godless country. That my money was being used to oppress families into a single child regime, support the death penalty for minor crimes, fund the continued massacre of indigenous creatures, and the oblivion of the worlds eco system driven by the inherent greed of a nation sworn to become the most powerful country on the planet – at any cost. (Admittedly she had had a few glasses of Chardonnay at this point).

So whilst I stood motionless during the avalanche of abuse pouring over me, I had time to wonder and contemplate her argument, gearing up for a repost equal to the verbal beating I had just taken. What could I say? Was she right? Had I been directly funding the imprisonment of minority religious leaders? was I responsible for the decline in the traditional Chinese family system? Had I somehow become a key player in China’s destruction of the worlds sensitive eco system?

I played with responding using the Norman Tebbit philosophy that I was just “Getting on my Bike” and finding work to support my family, or even the Nazi war crimes excuse that “I was just following orders”. None of these seemed appropriate or relevant, I had left a UK job to come to China, and I was for all intense purposes the boss with no one giving me direct instructions. So I mustered all of my intellect, my years of social grooming, the decades of experience and the extremes of my vocabulary to utter a single word – “Bollocks”.

Yes “Bollocks”, sorry but I couldn’t help it. I knew it would be impossible to talk reason with someone who had a profound believe, and such a passionate viewpoint on these matters. I could have come up with a Pulitzer Prize winning speech, a Barack Obama crowd-pleasing address to a field of party faithful, all to try and change her mind, but I reverted to type.

This had the impact of at least shutting her up, so as she looked at me stunned I went on to explain that I may, in some small way have been feeding the Peoples Republic of China Communist party, but she also played a part – you see virtually every car you buy, every toy you purchase, the clothes you wear, the computer you play on, the bra you use for support, the zipper keeping your jacket together, the suitcase you pack your clothes into, the watch that tells you the time, the shoes that fit snuggly on your feet, the TV you watch and the Radio you listen too were all made in China, by Chinese workers and Chinese companies – who all pay Chinese income and corporate tax, in far greater quantities than me. They all burn natural resources, they all impact on the political and natural environment of the country – so here is a deal, as soon as you stop buying Chinese produced goods, I will leave the country and stop paying tax to the Chinese government - or at least directly!

I won’t tell you how the conversation ended, but needless to say I won’t be appearing on that news program in the near future. However it has made me think about my time in China, and how other people perceive me, and other people like me who work here. I had never seen myself as someone who is in direct support of a government I didn’t (or couldn’t) vote for – despite having to pay taxes. Is the same argument true of everyone who pays taxes but didn’t vote for the elected government? Are taxes an indirect vote of support for the government? Personally I think the argument is, is well Bollocks. But maybe you know better- I would be interested in your comments – perhaps someone out there is willing to engage in a Morgan Spulock experiment, where by instead of only eating MacDonald’s products for a month, they abstain from buying anything made in China for 30 days?

I am as usual writing this Blog whilst sitting on a plane, this time on my way back to blighty, and although I will only be in the country for a few days I will try and see how difficult/easy it is to succeed – although I somehow think the hire car I have ordered from the airport will have a multitude of parts with the “Made in China” label hidden somewhere!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

AP Interview and Video

A copy of the video taken at the new base for London Taxi production in Shanghai, and the supporting feature that has appeared in news outlets across the world.

London Taxi's famed black cabs made in China

FENGJING, China (AP) — London Taxis are as British as bowler hats and Big Ben. But the latest models coming off this new assembly line are unlikely to ever touch an English road.
At a sprawling factory in the lush green suburbs of Shanghai, young Chinese workers are busily gearing up for full-scale production of one of Britain's most iconic vehicles. It's part of an odd alliance that aims to give the distinctive black cab a greater presence outside its namesake city.
London Taxi International, which will continue to build nine out 10 cabs used in Britain at a factory in Coventry, England, couldn't grow production at its small-scale, high-cost plant. So it turned to a partner — and to China — as a way to drive overseas expansion.

"To say the writing was on the wall would be pushing it a bit too far. But you do need to make progress within the automotive industry," said Paul Stowe, a British auto executive who is overseeing the joint venture between Britain's Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC, owner of London Taxi International, and Geely Group Holdings, one of China's biggest independent automakers.
The venture is bearing fruit already, Stowe said, with agreements signed to sell 6,000 London Taxis from the Chinese factory, more than double the Coventry plant's annual output.
Most will go to cities outside China — places like Singapore, Dubai, Moscow — that covet the image associated with the London Taxis' tradition of good service and durability.
The cars are unlikely to displace other vehicles used as taxis in China given their higher price and the strong political sway of bigger automakers with the local officials in charge of city fleets.
Instead, LTI expects to sell them mostly to hotels, limousine services, airports, and individuals who might want to collect one, Stowe said.
Manganese Bronze Holdings hunted for nearly a decade for a suitable Chinese partner. Geely likewise was looking for a chance to bring onboard the new technology and quality upgrades it needs to get ahead in China's brutally competitive market, without risking being swallowed by a huge international rival.
"We were the right size and available at the right time. It works well for both companies," said Stowe, who in his 15-year automaking career already has completed almost a global tour of the industry, working first for Land Rover, then BMW, Jaguar, Ford, Lotus, MG-Rover and then MG Nanjing — a venture set up after Chinese automaker Nanjing Automobile Group bought MG-Rover.
Trial production of London Taxi's TX4, equipped with 2.4-liter Mitsubishi engines, began last week in Geely's sprawling Shanghai Maple factory, in the scenic canal town of Fengjing. By mid-December, the plant will launch mass production.
By boosting volume, LTI expects to reduce costs by up to 60 percent, with most of the savings coming not from cheaper labor but from less costly parts, Stowe said. The price for the vehicles hasn't been disclosed, but will be significantly cheaper than the British-made models, which sell for about 30,000 British pounds ($54,000), he said.
"Classical British Icon with Traditional Chinese Spirit," reads one of the many slogans in the factory.
Unlike most highly automated modern auto plants, there are few robots since the London Taxi is hand-built and hand-welded. The result is a heavy-duty, durable vehicle that can be driven 1 million miles and last several decades.
But it's the vehicle's traditional idiosyncrasies, such as its famed ability to make extremely tight turns, and the storage space next to the driver's seat that originally held hay bales in the days of horse and carriage, that give the black cab its appeal as "not just another car," says Stowe, who as deputy general manager of Shanghai LTI Automobile is busy plotting the venture's brand strategy.
Black cabs — which these days often come in other colors and are festooned with advertising — are seen strictly as a commercial vehicle back home. But in China, the vehicle's novelty, and notoriety from appearances in dozens of films, lends it a certain cachet.
"It's pretty cool to see a British car traveling on the street of Shanghai, just like in a movie scene," said Xu Bin, senior auto trend editor for the local magazine Metropolis.
But much will depend on how Geely, which is in charge of selling the cars in China and the rest of Asia, decides to market the vehicle: The terms of the 53 million pound ($95 million) deal gave the Chinese side a 52 percent share in the joint venture, as well as a 23 percent stake in Manganese Bronze Holdings. The British partner holds 48 percent of the joint venture and rights to sales of the vehicles in the rest of the world.
Stowe, who has sold the rights to his memoire of his experiences working in China with MG Nanjing to the BBC, seems something of an cultural ambassador in the automaking world.
To help explain the London Taxis' distinctive, tall-topped shape, he keeps a bowler hat on hand.
Although round, black bowler hats are an uncommon sight in London nowadays, decades-old British rules required that a gentleman be able to sit comfortably in the back of a London Taxi with his hat on.
"I actually purchased the bowler hat in London," he said, "but I was surprised to see when I looked at the label that it was made in China."