China’s links with Sheffield are growing as key figures promote the city as the gateway for Chinese investment in the north of England.
The University of Sheffield’s vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett is the latest to visit the Asian superpower, making a trip to the former capital city of Nanjing.
This comes just weeks after Sheffield Council signed a 60-year partnership with the Sichuan Guodong Construction Company, based in Sheffield’s sister city of Chengdu.
The deal will bring hundreds of millions of pounds into Sheffield, with £220m in the first three years alone to be spent on four or five infrastructure projects.
The University of Sheffield’s Confucius Institue and Sheffield Chamber of Commerce announced their intention last month to make Sheffield a base for Chinese investment in the north by setting up a ‘world-class’ business gateway.
The university now has more than 10,000 graduates in China, and Sir Keith’s visit was designed in part to strengthen ties and encourage further investment in Sheffield.
And it was not Sir Keith’s first time in China.
Also central to the visit was an annual meeting with long-standing partners Nanjing University and Beijing Language and Culture University, and an opportunity to deepen existing collaborations in areas such as high-tech engineering and next generation computing, as well as in the humanities and social sciences.
“The meetings we held in China were not introductions but the continuation of a deep partnership between long-standing academic colleagues and friends,” Sir Keith said on his return.
“Our partners in Beijing and Nanjing have been working with us now for almost a decade and we are determined to extend our relationships for the benefits of our students and cities.
“This visit, for example, I met with staff from Nanjing University’s superb college of engineering and applied sciences.
“They are already working with our partners at Ohio State University in America on summer camps which bring together young engineers from different countries to solve engineering problems and build collaboration across nations.
“This is just the kind of opportunity we want to offer our own student engineers in Sheffield and so we want to make this a three-way initiative.
“It will be a fantastic opportunity for students to work internationally on live projects.
“Similarly Nanjing’s engineers and computer scientists are already working with our leading research on semiconductors and next generation computing.
“We are now planning to develop this kind of research partnership into a full joint institute approach.”
Sir Keith also discussed collaboration in the social sciences, particularly in the area of economics, to draw on the need of both China and the UK to find ways to grow economically without leaving behind poorer communities, and in the humanities in areas such as history.
He said: “These partnerships are mature and there is an exchange of staff at all levels.
“Nanjing University engineers have in some cases worked for a period in our own faculty of engineering in Sheffield.
“They know us and we know them. On this visit the vice-chancellor of Nanjing offered to send one of his staff, who develops international partnerships, to work in Sheffield for a year where she will help strengthen our work on global humanities.
“The key thing to understand here is that our relationships with China in Sheffield are not new and not only about commercial investment.
“We do work with Chinese companies on a whole range of shared research, but the real investment China makes in Sheffield is through people and time.”
This is shown clearly in the desire of Chinese students to study in Sheffield, despite often coming from poor backgrounds.
Sir Keith said: “Sheffield is home to 6,000 Chinese students and each one of them represents the hard work and in some cases real struggle of Chinese parents and grandparents to give this opportunity to their young people.
“The Chinese really value education and we are hugely blessed as a city as a result.
“In this sense, China has been making a massive investment in Sheffield for years.
“Our first Chinese student graduated from the University of Sheffield 50 years ago.
“International students contribute over 10 per cent of inward investment to our city and region, and you only have to walk around the city centre and see Chinese food markets and signs in shops to realise how much numerous Sheffield businesses already rely on this.
“But it goes much further. Chinese students spend precious formative years in Sheffield and it is their English home-from-home.
“Many are involved in volunteering in our city or have worked with local charities.
“They love their time with us and they take this knowledge and deep affection with them into their lives after graduation.
“Sheffield has literally thousands of goodwill ambassadors across China who think of Sheffield as part of their lives.”