Manchester embraced China. Then things started to get sticky

The inside story of a city region’s delicate diplomacy 

Dear Millers — our weekend read is about Greater Manchester’s close ties to China. For months our reporter Jacklin Kwan has been speaking to people involved in the relationship and trying to understand how it might be threatened by the rapid deterioration of Sino-British relations, including tensions over who builds our 5G network and growing unease about human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

It’s our second long read of the week — the first was Robert Firth’s brilliant feature about the past and future of Pomona Island, which went out to members on Wednesday. If you haven’t read that one yet, click on the link below.

The Mill
Palaces, parties and high-rise property: The story of Manchester’s forgotten island
Dear Millers — today’s members’ story is a fascinating long read about Pomona Island, the stretch of scraggly land you can see from the tram just north of Trafford Bar Metrolink stop. To some people, it’s an ugly wasteland that needs to be put to good use in an expanding city that needs more homes. For others, including some of those quoted in our story……
Read more

By Jacklin Kwan

The city of Kashgar is an oasis in an otherwise arid and dry desert in Western China. It’s not what most readers will think of as a typical Chinese city — instead of towering skyscrapers, Kashgar’s most iconic architecture is sand-coloured buildings with tiled arches, decorated with geometric patterns. Its landscape is heavily influenced by the city’s large population of Uyghur Muslims, who make up around four-fifths of residents. 

Kashgar is in Xinjiang province, an area that has become notorious in recent years for China’s oppressive “re-education camps”, in which – according to human rights organisations and the reporting of reputable media organisations – Uyghur citizens are sterilised, brainwashed and forced to work in factories against their will. 

Aside from the distinctive architecture, another feature of Kashgar is highly noticeable: it has thousands of checkpoints at which live security cameras feedback into a comprehensive surveillance system. At a click of a mouse, the police can pull up live video streams from any camera and identify the people in it. The New York Times reports that the systems can retrieve someone’s likeness, their home address, educational records, family ties and movement history.

The architect of this technology is China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) – a defence manufacturer that’s helping the country roll out military cyber systems to police civilian populations. CETC is a state-owned company with over 170,000 employees and close links to officials in the ruling Communist Party. 

CETC contains many smaller units that make products across the whole gamut of electronics and information, including artificial intelligence and big data. The 38th Research Institute of CETC specialises in radio astronomy.

The Manchester connection 

Over 3,600 miles from Kashgar lies Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. I remember being taken there on a day trip before I started my Physics degree at the University of Manchester. It’s the home of one of the North West’s crown jewels – the famous Lovell Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Completed in 1957 and measuring 250 feet in diameter, the telescope is so huge that the dish distorts under its own weight. 

I recall that while our group was walking past the rolling greens that surround the observatory, the tour guide mentioned that the Lovell Telescope once pointed towards the Iron Curtain during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – ready to provide early warning of intercontinental ballistic missiles launched towards the West. It was an alien concept to many students in my cohort: how enmeshed the history of science is with the history of war; how even today’s biggest scientific innovators can be – wittingly or unwittingly – building arms. 

CETC has a very different philosophy from many of the space-loving scientists who work at Jodrell Bank. When it was founded, it had the stated aim of leveraging civilian technology for the interests of the People’s Liberation Army (the name of China’s state military), like it’s currently doing in Kashgar. 

In 2018, the University of Manchester heralded a new frontier for radio astronomy when it signed a landmark partnership with CETC to work at Jodrell Bank, creating a new joint research laboratory at the university. There was talk of the Chinese defence giant “fostering a long-term relationship” with the university. As things turned out, the partnership didn’t even last three years. 

In January, the university received a letter from parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, whose chairman Tom Tugendhat is a well-known sceptic about Chinese power, or “China hawk”. In the letter, the Conservative MP wrote: “According to credible reports from both Human Rights Watch and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, CETC is one of the main architects of the Chinese government’s surveillance state in Xinjiang.” The university soon cut ties, and said it was investigating the “complex risks and issues that arise in the context of developing international research partnerships.” 

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The rapid collapse of the “long-term relationship” with CETC is an intriguing case study in the perils faced by this region’s universities, businesses and councils when they do business with China. Greater Manchester has offered the country a warm embrace in recent years and sees its closeness to China as a key competitive advantage. It was considered a major coup when Chinese premier Xi Jinping visited Manchester in 2015, touring the university’s National Graphene Institute and taking a selfie with Sergio Aguero at Manchester City. At the airport, Jinping announced non-stop flights from Beijing, upon which hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and tourists have arrived in the years since. 

George Osborne and Xi Jinping are given a tour of the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University by Nobel Prize winners Sir Kostya Novaselov and Sir Andre Geim in 2015. Photo by Richard Stonehouse/WPA Pool via Getty Images.

Those visitors and students are now considered critical to the economic survival of our universities and highly beneficial to the city economy, with one business figure telling The Mill that Chinese spending in Manchester is becoming “a major slice of revenue for the retail sector”. More than that, dozens more deals and partnerships have been signed since Xi’s visit, including some of the biggest building contracts in Greater Manchester and a string of high profile university collaborations. While overseas investment in the city region from the US still dwarfs that from China, it’s the potential future size of the relationship that excites local leaders.

But as international condemnation of China grows, and attitudes towards the country harden in Westminster with the rise in influence of the China hawks, could Greater Manchester’s Sinophilia, previously regarded as a major strength for the region, turn out to be a fatal weakness? 

The China whisperer 

Along Oxford Road stands Churchgate House. It’s an unassuming red brick building, currently decorated with big blue signs outside that read: “Thank you NHS”. A golden lion stands guard at the entrance above the arched doorway. The building houses Greater Manchester’s Investment Development Agency Service. The name harkens back to the mythical king, Midas – everything he touches turns to gold.

Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan greet dignitaries before boarding an Air China plane at Manchester airport at the end of their state visit to Britain. Photo by Oli Scarff/WPA Pool for Getty Images.

MIDAS has two main vehicles, one focusing on India and the other on China — called the Manchester China Forum. Established by George Osborne, it has orchestrated high-profile diplomatic visits to the city and it sends a clear message to Chinese investors: Manchester is game. Its website says the forum “works to ensure Manchester is equipped and ready for China’s rapid growth and the opportunity that this presents.” 

Chairing the forum is a sprightly fortysomething man called Rhys Whalley, who has ginger hair and a look of eternal optimism. Everyone I speak to about Manchester’s links with China advises me that I need to speak to Whalley. “He is a really important part of keeping the relationship strong,” says a senior source at Manchester City Council. “You need to chat to Rhys,” says a more junior official at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. 

Whalley worked in China for almost a decade, first at the property firm Jones Lang LaSalle in Beijing and then for the European Union Chamber of Commerce, and he speaks Mandarin fluently. When I watch his interviews on Chinese TV, I’m surprised that he has a proper Chinese name (Shen Ru, 申瑞, roughly meaning ‘auspiciousness’) rather than a bad attempt at a phonetics conversion (like changing Jack into Jia Ke or Joshua into Jia Shu Wa). 

In most of his time running the forum, conditions for GM-China relations have indeed looked auspicious. When we speak, Whalley’s approach is clear: commercial pragmatism over politics. “I think it’s sort of easy to be drawn up into the geopolitics but actually, businesses are looking to crack on and engage,” Whalley told me. For him, increasing links with China is fundamental to Greater Manchester’s much-talked-about goal of becoming a “world-class global city”. He told me: “I firmly believe that as an aspirational global city that is committed to building back better and to delivering transformational changes in areas like decarbonisation, healthcare and education, I think there are tremendous opportunities ahead of us to engage constructively.”

Whalley acts as something of a go-between, helping to facilitate investment and help Manchester-based projects to connect with Chinese partners. A video on YouTube shows him on a 2019 tour of a “5G experiential hub” in Salford organised by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Also on the tour was Salford’s elected mayor Paul Dennett, who welcomed the news that the Chinese firm was opening an office in MediaCity around the same time. A year later, the UK government banned Huawei and other “high risk vendors” from working on the 5G network. 

“We’ve always had very good relationships with the Chinese consulate,” says a senior source at Manchester City Council. Top council officials attend regular dinners and meetings at the magnificent Denison House, China’s consulate building in Rusholme (read our long read about the building’s history here). The consulate opened in the mid-1980s — which insiders point to as the moment when the flirtation with China turned into something more serious. 

“The national relationship [with China] at that time was poor,” says one source, who remembers a delegation of Chinese officials coming and suggesting a partnership with one particular city: Wuhan, the major industrial city in Central China, now best known as the origin of Covid-19. In 1986 the Manchester-Wuhan relationship was cemented: the two became twin cities, and in 2018, China Daily reported that at a summit in Wuhan, leaders of both had vowed to “deepen co-operation”.

During the height of the PPE shortage in the UK, the consulate coordinated the distribution of masks and medicine to Chinese student societies in Manchester. It also plays an active role with Manchester's Chinese community, with whom it maintains a slightly paternalistic relationship, hosting events that celebrate historical milestones in China. One rather eccentric example: it invites students to commemorate the intellectual contributions of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the form of film screenings and keynote speeches.

A big part of its role is working with Whalley to increase business links. An investment guide published by the Manchester China Forum says that there are 86 Chinese-owned companies operating across Manchester, including the Bank of China, the Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG), Chint, Huawei and the state-owned Chongqing Machinery & Electric Co. The forum describes Manchester as “the investable city” – and it has plenty of evidence in recent years to back that up. 

The Far East Consortium, a Chinese-owned company based in Hong Kong, is a crucial investor in the £1bn Northern Gateway Project, which is transforming neighbourhoods north of the city centre. And BCEG is one of the biggest Chinese players in the region, having invested in Manchester Airports Group to develop the £800m Airport City, and having won the £130m contract to redevelop Wigan town centre. Wigan Council was recently accused of “acting like communist China” after it suspended a librarian who objected to the redevelopment. 

“Let's not forget that we have taken an almighty decision to remove ourselves from the European Union, our largest trading partner,” says Whalley. “That means that relationships with critical markets, like China, take on even greater significance, so it is absolutely essential that the UK government throws its support behind enabling businesses to capitalise on that.”

‘Military-civilian fusion’

“At the Zhu Ri He military parade, more than a hundred [war-hawks] soar across the sky,” reports Xinhua News Agency, China’s official state-run press agency. More than 600 new engines and turbines were being exhibited, developed by the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC). 

This aero-upstart is China’s answer to Boeing and Airbus, and like those companies, it also produces arms: stealth fighters and the aforementioned war-hawks. In order to compete with its European and American rivals, AECC needs to find innovations and research that give its planes a competitive edge – which is where the University of Manchester comes in.

The university has a partnership with the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials, a subsidiary of AECC, which was announced two years ago. The partnership set up a centre dedicated to finding applications of graphene to planes, which no doubt has major civilian benefits. The Beijing institute and the university aim to develop and study advanced materials that can go into plane engines that make them lighter, stronger and more robust over time.

A protester demonstrating during President Xi visit to Manchester. The demo was calling for a 'Free Tibet' and Taiwanese independence. Photo by Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Far from being a secretive laboratory ringed by barbed wire, the research that the Beijing institute does in Manchester takes place in the university’s many buildings devoted to advanced material research. One such building is the Henry Royce Institute, a sleek-looking block with glass facades. Since it does research on materials, often researchers work in the building’s “clean rooms” where they trudge around in rather unfashionable coveralls, hair nets, face masks, gloves and sterile boot covers.

Of course, these advanced materials can be used in commercial planes but also in military ones. And that dual nature of many Chinese state-owned industrial companies could prove problematic for Manchester. Many organisations like the Beijing institute receive military funding, educate military students and have dedicated initiatives for defence research. This “military-civilian fusion” (as it’s known in China) is hardly even a secret. 

The Integrated Review, a key report published by the government in March, highlighted concerns about China’s assertiveness on the global stage and the importance of countering the threats it poses to “[the UK’s] security, prosperity and values”. As the collapse of the CETC partnership shows, UK universities are under pressure over their relationships with Chinese businesses where links to the military or China’s oppression of its own citizens can be shown. 

“We're cognisant of some of the wider geopolitical challenges that are being faced both bilaterally and multilaterally,” says Whalley. “But, at the same time, I think cities have a really important role to play in bringing some of these issues down to a very practical approach.” He knows there is particular sensitivity around university research that is seen as helping China militarily. “If you talk to colleagues at local universities or those that are perhaps active in the innovation space, they've always been very aware of some of those particular areas of challenge,” he says. 

“We work in a global economy, we trade with each other, we have very strong cultural links together,” says Andrew Wilkinson, head of The Innovation Factory at the University of Manchester, which aims to move cutting-edge research ideas from the laboratories of Manchester to the commercial market. Wilkinson himself worked in China for many years.

In 2019, he closed a deal where Tungshu Optoelectronics, a private China-based company, invested nearly £1 million in funding to Riptron Ltd to develop low-cost graphene sensors that monitor air quality and pollution. “It’s a question of finding the balance – we will respect the rules set down by the UK government and the differences of opinion between the two countries,” he says. “But we also need to recognise there is a huge amount of mutual benefit to working together.” 

A protester in Piccadilly Gardens shows his support for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in August last year. Photo by Christopher Furlong via Getty Images.

A spokesperson from the University of Manchester told The Mill: “We value our connections with China as an important part of the UK’s extensive international trade and cultural links. All such interactions, however, must be based on government guidance and regulation. The University gives careful consideration to its research collaborations in the light of this legislation and government guidance.” The spokesperson adds: “We take all reasonable measures to assure ourselves that our research is not used beyond its agreed application.”

The researcher 

While reporting this story, I met up with a Chinese graduate student who does advanced materials research at the University of Manchester. We agree that I won’t name the institute where he works or talk about the specific details of his research in order to protect his identity. 

We meet at a coffee shop on Oxford Road — as I approach him, I see he’s reading John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. As something of an aside, it’s a book that might remind us how recently our own societies indulged in the kind of censorship we now associate with China — the novel was banned in several US counties, and across Ireland in 1953. I try to make small talk but soon realise that he struggles with English, so we switch to Mandarin. He seems embarrassed and says he’s been attempting to improve his English by reading more. 

I ask him what led him to do research in Manchester, and after admitting that Imperial College London was his first choice, he says he’s happy he ended up here because he loves football. He’s a little nerdy and shy, and is still attempting to integrate with local culture — like thousands of Chinese students in the city. 

Their numbers swelled by almost 50% in the five years before the pandemic, creating an ecosystem of accommodation blocks, societies and activities designed specifically for them. The South China Morning Post reports that just the University of Manchester has the largest population of Chinese students in Europe — around 5,000 in total, many of them graduate students like the young man I’m meeting. There are thousands more at MMU, the universities of Salford and Bolton and at the music schools. And they contribute disproportionately to the universities’ coffers. “The percentage of students is one thing, but the percentage of income is another,” says a university lecturer who is closely involved with attracting overseas students.

I ask the research student I’m meeting the question I’ve come to ask: Could the research he does ever be militarised for the Chinese state? Immediately walls go up and he becomes less talkative. It’s a cagey-ness I also sensed when talking to Whalley, and to a certain extent, I understand it. They perceive the media to be less than nuanced about China — often employing vaguely racist stereotypes and images of threat like a “new world order” — and they wonder whether they are going to regret talking to me.

After a little gentle cajoling, the young scientist answers. “There’s a possibility, but that’s just the case in all research,” he says. He thinks the chances are slim — the research is still at a stage where scientists are attempting to understand the theoretical workings of the advanced materials.

His unease talking about his work mirrors Greater Manchester’s present dilemma. Local leaders are keen to deepen the city region’s links to China, hoping that they can build on their success so far and use Chinese investment to power the post-pandemic recovery. But with anti-China sentiment growing in Westminster in recent months, the relationship could easily suffer. 

Quite apart from the commercial dimensions, Greater Manchester prides itself on its association with causes like women’s suffrage, the birth of the cooperative movement, trade unionism and the fight on behalf of working class people during the industrial era for free speech. Those themes are regular fixtures in the speeches of leaders like Andy Burnham and Sir Richard Leese, and we are reminded about them by statues and placards across the city. In fact, tomorrow the city will mark the 202nd anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter's Field. Signing deals with state-owned enterprises that are implicated in the horrifying human rights abuses in Xinjiang would surrender that moral leadership in short order. 

Alongside that moral responsibility, leaders also have to tread a line to not treat all Chinese corporate or cultural presence as hostile or a threat. Behind the researcher’s hesitancy to speak openly about his work is the fear that conversations about human rights abuses or the military will spill over to contaminate all partnerships with companies and universities in a country that contains almost a fifth of the world’s population.

I try to end my conversation with the Chinese researcher on a lighter note and ask him if he’s noticed any cultural differences while working in Manchester. He says that the unique cultural experience was one of the main reasons why he came here. British students, he says, are less hyper-focused on studying and more willing to express creativity in their work and take risks. And there’s also less of an emphasis on seniority-based hierarchies in the lab. “Even when I have Chinese supervisors,” he says, “They let me speak my mind more.”

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Go deeper: Made by China: How Chinese building firms are winning the biggest deals in the North. 'If you’re putting hundreds of billions, if not trillions in investment in different parts of the world, you would want your own companies to benefit from it'. Read the members-only story.

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