China: Collecting China

A kind reader recently told me how much they've enjoyed my latest columns on art and yachts. Encouraged, I ventured: "Well I hope you'll enjoy the next one too – it's about China". "Ah, china," he said. "Does that mean the government is dropping import tax on porcelain too?"

You couldn't make it up. But no, dear reader, I will not expounding on the market in Meissen, the rally in Royal Worcester or the capital gains in Capodimonte – although coincidentally a week off in Naples beckons in October. Instead I will offer you some thoughts on China, the country.

In August 2012, under the title "BRIC and back", I wrote about the phenomena of the so-called "BRIC" grouping of countries – namely Brazil, Russia, India and, of course, China – which then became "BRICS" with the inclusion of South Africa in 2010.

Since that time, there have been some considerable changes in the world order. Russia has of course been on our front pages for some time as its foreign policy leaves it increasingly isolated politically and economically from the West. Brazil has been on our back pages, after staging a football World Cup and is soon to host the Olympics, but is also having its fair share of difficulties – not least the eye-watering costs and the shocking semi-final loss to Germany. India and South Africa are both facing challenges, which I will save for another day. For now, I want to focus on China – and with good reason.

Why? Well simply because "it's the place to be". Let's start by considering some astonishing numbers. At the beginning of September, the Chinese population was estimated at 1.37 billion people – or 19% of the world total. Think of it this way. If we were spread equally round the world one out of every five people would be Chinese. If you think someone is "one in million" there are a thousand Chinese just like them.

OK maybe I made that last bit up, but China remains the world's most populous country. India is not far behind at 1.25 billion but the United States, in third place, can only muster 319 million people. Of course it is not just the quantity but the quality that counts. China's middle class is expanding rapidly and consumer spending is expected to grow at an annual rate of 7.7% over the next decade to hit around $11 trillion by 2024. That explains the Western demand for Chinese ecommerce platform Alibaba, which has just announced plans to raise US$20 billion in a public offering in the US. No wonder so many parents around the world are encouraging their children to learn Mandarin.

The sheer numbers alone demand that any international firm must consider and develop a China strategy. This is true not just for the US, the UK and the rest of the EU countries, but for many smaller nations around the world. Smaller states that can offer real expertise and high quality can achieve good market penetration. The Scandinavian countries are fine examples and, to localise this trend, we can reasonably include Gibraltar too. This is because the Gibraltar government is not just talking about its interest in China – it is actually doing something about it too. Read on.

From a Gibraltar perspective I am often asked (particularly from within the Sovereign Group, which has extensive operations in China and the Far East) whether there are any services we could offer that might be interest to the Chinese. I've never really come up with a satisfactory answer except that it's probably not going to be the export of manufactured goods. Regular readers might recall that I am a great fan of Gibraltar Crystal and for all I know this amazing local firm, which ships custom made pieces to clients all over the world, already exports to China. But I don't suppose they are looking to break into the mass market in China.

No, Gibraltar's future in China almost certainly depends on the sectors that I tend to talk about each and every month – financial and professional services. In other words, Gibraltar's insurance, funds and pensions products, as well as its private client offering. The trickier bit is deciding firstly, whether to enter the China market and, if so, how to go about it?

Earlier this year, the Gibraltar government opened an office in Hong Kong. This is designed to be both a showcase for Gibraltar and serve as a stepping-stone into China. Jason Cruz, a Gibraltarian who has lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years, was appointed as Gibraltar's representative and Director of the new office.

The government said that in addition to serving Gibraltar's financial services industry, the office would act as a shop window for the other, diverse, sectors of our economy. However it also hoped that the reverse would be true. That the new office would encourage Chinese investors to use Gibraltar both for direct investments on the Rock and as an entry-point into the wider European market.

And the Gibraltar government's support doesn't end there. In September, a high level delegation led by Minister for Financial Services Albert Isola proved hugely successful. The group included professionals from the funds and asset management sector, together with James Tipping and Philip Canessa of Gibraltar Finance.

So private sector firms can certainly be assured of government support if they decide to target China, but what is the best way to enter this vast and highly fragmented market? As with all market entry initiatives, paying a visit is normally the first step – what I call "fly driving". This is where the fun begins. China's is indeed another country – they do things differently there. Apart from the distances – not just to get there, but to travel internally – there are visa requirements, an array of national, regional and local government bureaus, not to mention the linguistic and cultural barriers. China is not for the faint-hearted, but the rewards can be, well, highly rewarding.

My recommendation is to seek good advice from the start. There is plenty around. There are several business groups in London dedicated to developing links between the UK and China; Gibraltar professionals are welcome at any of these (I know because I have tried it). Then there are English-speaking firms, both foreign and local, that have dedicated offices on the ground. Hong Kong can be of great benefit but try to seek out people who can assist you in Beijing and Shanghai too – as well as other fast growing cities such as Chengdu, Shenzhen, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Let me know if you'd like some introductions in these areas.

How about enticing Chinese high net worth residents to Gibraltar? Why not? After all, Gibraltar is an excellent base for Europe. The financial and fiscal benefits combined with ease of doing business here make Gibraltar as attractive to Chinese people seeking European exposure – or a safe bolthole – as to any other nationality. The Mediterranean climate and landscape should not be under-estimated either.

With our direct, daily link to Heathrow's Terminal 5, getting to and from China might take time but the connections are easy and numerous – British Airways and its alliance partners alone fly from the UK to 25 different Chinese destinations! BA's chief Willie Walsh is not known for opening routes just to please plane spotters, so we should be asking ourselves who all these people are? And what can we do to encourage them to continue their journey to the Rock?

Have you detected just a hint of excitement? You bet. In the case of China, as the master might have sung "if you can make it there" ... well, you know the rest. I often encounter cynics who say you must be dreaming if you think little Gibraltar can ever hope to get business from China. Well, I believe they should wake up. If they want to ignore one-fifth of the world's population, that's fine. But please allow the rest of us to go and win the business instead.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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