British Business in China: We Are Here To Stay

Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, St John Moore, expressed the sentiment of much of the expat community when he said, “We are here to stay. We are not leaving.”

Despite the challenging business environment due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, British business leaders have decided to remain in China.

The British Chamber of Commerce in China, in an effort to discover the extent to which business operations had been affected, surveyed their members and released the findings in their Impact Report.

The Chamber discussed their findings in a live webinar with the UK’s ambassador to China, Dame Margaret Woodward.

Coronavirus Impact

The survey represents “the full range of British businesses of all size operating across a broad range of sectors,” and is national in its spread.

The report finds that almost all British businesses in China (97%) have experienced a negative impact on operations, and more than half (54%) register a significant impact.

Almost four in ten businesses (39%) have reported uncertainty and inability in making business and investment decisions, with almost one quarter (22%) postponing investment decisions.

A majority of respondents (31%) believe that normal operations will resume by the end of March. But, more than one quarter of companies (27%) said they do not know when business as usual will return.

In an effort to adapt to the challenging business environment, 87% of businesses have been working from home and 37% have established flexible working hours.

The Impact Report also found that roughly half (49%) of companies wanted “more clarity” from the the British government.

Steven Lynch, Managing Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, said he would like to see the UK “step up” their communication efforts, and offer more support to business.

“I hope at this time the government steps up their communication efforts, works with the Chamber to amplify their messaging and offers more support to businesses and British nationals,” he said.

British Government’s advice

On Thursday, Britain’s ambassador to China, Dame Margaret Woodward, attended a Chamber webinar series in an effort to understand the business communities needs and to provide clarity on the government’s advice and means of support.

The online meeting was notably the first direct communication between the government and affected Brits in China, since the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, advised British nationals to “leave the country.”

During the webinar, the ambassador focused on three key areas of interest to the British community in China. The UK’s assessment of the coronavirus, the government’s travel advice, and the embassy’s operations in China.

The governments believes the coronavirus to be “highly infectious, and has the potential to become a pandemic,” the ambassador said.

In terms of severity, she said “We don’t know how dangerous it is,” but added that the virus is “probably not as dangerous as SARS… but a lot more deadly than the common flu virus.”

The ambassador informed the viewing Chamber audience that the government’s first priority was to help those most affected. With the Brits stranded in Wuhan successfully evacuated, “Our focus is turning to the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, including the global economic impact and the impact on UK companies,” she said.

Turning to the government’s controversial travel advice, which many thought was an “overreaction,” the ambassador apologised for the way in which the advice was communicated, but stood firmly by the government’s decision.

“I appreciate that the travel advice changed rather quickly and was announced in a way that…was not ideal and I am sorry about that.”

Woodward went on to say that the advice was not solely based on the assessment of health risks to individuals alone.  A number of factors were considered, including the “accessibility of healthcare”  as well as wider issues such as, “access to supplies, restrictions on movement and the reduction of international transport options,” she said.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), currently advises against all travel to Hubei Province, against all-but-essential travel to the rest of China, and advises UK nationals based in China is to leave if possible.

“As of now, there are no plans to strengthen that travel advice further, but it is being kept under daily review.”

British business: We are here to stay

Expressing the sentiment of much of the expat community, Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, St John Moore, said “We are here to stay. We are not leaving.”

Chamber Vice-Chair, Julian Fisher, noted prior to the webinar that the travel advice from the FCO was “very knee jerk and not hugely helpful to people who have jobs, families and lives in China.”

The British Chamber has “deep roots” in China and “many companies would like to stay to help,” said the Chamber Chairman. With many business leaders choosing to remain in China, Moore asked the Ambassador, what assistance the UK government is planning to provide to British businesses.

Members of the Chamber noted that the Chinese government is offering “preferential loan policies” for domestic companies particularly affected by the coronavirus outbreak and have expressed concern that the policy “could potentially put British companies operating in China at a disadvantage.”

The British ambassador announced that the government is monitoring the financial relief activities provided by the Chinese government and that the Trade Commissioner for China, Richard Burn, is currently looking into possible means and methods of financial assistance.

The British Chamber has postponed all scheduled public activities until the middle of March, but the message to their members is that “We remain open.”  Over the next week, the Chamber will conduct another survey focusing on the needs of British businesses in China, and will arrange details for their next webinar series.

From February 17, the British government will implement a “remote working” policy, so that Consular services are more easily accessible to British nationals based in China.