By John Forkin – Managing Director of Marketing Derby

A country of 1.4 billion people, spanning 5 time zones, with an economy worth £12trillion.

China can be easily described in numbers – impressive ones at that – but nothing prepares you for the shock of growth experienced during any visit today.

I write this following my fifth trip to the Middle Kingdom this autumn.

An intense week included promoting the Midlands in Shanghai, as well as Derby and Derbyshire in our twin city of Hefei.

The Shanghai leg included presentations at the large UK pavilion located in the China International Industrial Fair (itself one of the world’s largest business exhibitions with 165,000 visitors).

Over 60 delegates came out from the Midlands, supported by a phalanx of government officials and a Cabinet Minister (Sajid Javid), as well as companies such as Rolls-Royce, who kindly sent their Head of China down from Beijing.

Derby and Derbyshire were represented by a delegation of 20 – including senior people from the City, County, University, tourism and businesses – all of whom then took the bullet train on a journey 300 miles west to Hefei in the province of Anhui, continuing to evolve civic and business relationships.

This time, once I’d returned, something felt very different.

I noticed significantly more interest being expressed from business colleagues, many of whom were asking me numerous questions, intrigued to get an insight into what modern China is actually like?

It seems that, as the west appears increasingly perturbed and agitated, the east is becoming more confident about its destiny.

Savvy business people are sensing this and want to know how seriously to take China and the wider region.

As the UK leaves the EU in 2019, one of the most pressing questions is whether our separation will turn out to be an opportunity or threat in dealing with places like China.

My recommendation to anyone interested is very simple… go visit.

Either take one of the many government-organised trade missions, or actually just go on a break.

Put it this way.

Imagine you were alive in 1917 and were offered an opportunity to visit New York City – in 12 short hours – to glimpse the emerging United States of America. I suspect you would take it and you would have come back armed with important knowledge about its ambition, energy and desire.

Well, for New York and USA in 1917, read Shanghai and China in 2017.

On the one hand, many aspects of that country are familiar to us – most especially the food, which permeates every town in the UK via the ubiquitous take-aways. Din Sum, Chow Mein, Canton and Sichuan, have all entered the British lexicon. On this level we feel we know China.

Yet still, China itself holds an air of mystery.

Ever since the thirteenth century writings of that Venetian with a serious travel bug – Marco Polo – westerners have imagined a place of myth and fable.

Of course, during the nineteenth century this bubble was burst big-time when the British invaded China.

Imagine that. Britain actually invaded more than once, starting in 1839 – fighting two wars, both astonishingly aimed at forcing opium onto Chinese people in order to create an income stream for the UK. Not a proud moment.

Since then, China has suffered political turmoil; from the collapse of the dynasty system and subsequent revolution of 1949, through to Chairman Mao’s violent Cultural Revolution and then the introduction of the free market by Deng Xiaoping.

The political and economic system being operated in China today is one that is difficult for us to comprehend – a liberal free market operated within a centralised communist political state. Think sweet and sour.

Current President, Xi Jinping, is now firmly in control and recently launched a plan that sketches out the next steps in the country’s economic growth.

Many in the west still see China as a place that produces low value goods, those cocktail umbrella sticks and plastic toys. Others perceive it as a threat, seeking to copy intellectual property, reverse engineering our products.

Both of these perceptions are increasingly out of date.

Yes, there is still low value and doppelganger production but this is in decline, being replaced by the growth of a domestic consumer economy and hi-tech research, development and manufacturing.

A country that produces 8 million graduates each year is not going to be spending too much time on T-Shirt production.

The ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy sets an ambition to become a global, hi-tech leader in various industries, including advanced IT and robotics.

I saw some evidence of this on a visit to a company called Guoxuan High-Tech in Hefei.

The campus we visited was home to 800 engineers focused on research into Lithium battery power for use in the automotive sector.

Ironically, this was the same week that Donald Trump visited China, eagerly marking America off the green-tech pitch and announcing his intention to reopen coalmines as a source of power.

The geo-politics are important and the response of President Xi was to position himself, and China, as the global lead in open economy and multi-lateral trade.

One of China’s other strategies – known as Belt and Road – is to support infrastructure that connects the country with partner nations.

This example of soft power, underpinned by hard cash, has thrown up projects such as a new capital for Egypt – a brand new metropolis of 6million people to be built 30 miles from Cairo – funded using Chinese cash.

It’s the stuff you couldn’t have made up just a few short years ago.

So, should we be afraid?

I believe there are opportunities for the UK, but only if we see China through 21st century eyes. It’s important to build relationships on a basis of respect, trust and mutual benefit.

Despite our history, I find the Chinese friendly, humble even and instinctively pro-British. There are definitely opportunities for trade and investment, as well as educational, cultural, tourism and sporting links.

I can especially see significant opportunities for local companies with premium products to sell to the well-heeled Chinese middle class consumer – ‘Made in Britain’ remains a credible moniker with this group.

I picked up tangible frustration in China that our government is too passive – apparently Trade Secretary Liam Fox is yet to visit China – and there is a pressing requirement if we have any hope of creating the oft-mentioned ‘Global Britain’.

However, it can’t all be left to government. Maybe we all need to get off our proverbials and get onto planes, quickly shaking off any outdated perceptions and pro-actively engage with the 21st century’s greatest opportunity.