Earlier today I had a little taste of what it must be like to be a senior politician when I was driven through the streets of Shanghai with a police escort.
I’m not sure why our convoy of vehicles were awarded such importance. After all, we were only driving from our hotel to the massive Shanghai motor show. But it was fun while it lasted.
As we carved through the huge (and elegantly tree-lined) boulevard streets of downtown Shanghai, there was ample time to marvel at the sheer size and newness of this place. Like its smaller sister city of Hong Kong, Shanghai places an almost total emphasis on modernity and business. It’s all about trade and growth in China, a country which is still, in theory, Communist.
In the UK, we agonise over infrastructure, taking decades to build something like the Crossrail scheme across central London.
God alone knows how long it will take to build the High Speed Rail link from the capital to the Midlands. But you can bet that while we dither in Britain, China will have built thousands of miles of new motorway and a few more high speed rail lines.
Size is everything in modern China and the central state planners are enthusiastically embracing the Mega city, taking people out of poor, run-down, rural conditions and delivering them to a flat in a tower block albeit situated in a huge, bustling, city economy with impressively clean and elegant public spaces, super-modern underground railways and huge road networks.
Along the banks of the river that runs through Shanghai is a strip called ‘The Bund’, buildings from the 1920s and 1930s some of which were built by the Brits and give the appearance of a small slice of Liverpool or Bristol.
Nearby these old imperial buildings are a few remains of old Shanghai - the incredibly run down open-fronted shops that were once the face of Chinese city streets. The transformation from old to new China is breath taking. As one person said to me, China’s urban working classes have gone from no phones to mobile phones in one giant leap into the modern world.
The good news for the UK, is that this country is an incredibly important market for upmarket products. Fashion brands such as Mulberry are prospering in a country were the consumers are incredibly brand conscious and very focused on high-end quality and exclusivity. Such tastes bode well for domestic car makers such as Mini, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls Royce and Aston Martin.
But a visit to modern China is also a little terrifying. You realise just how much wealth and power is shifting to East Asia and how the UK will have to re-double its economic efforts in order to make enough money to pay for the level of public services that we want. The recent money markets warning to the US government that it cannot keep borrowing its way out of recession is a wake-up call for the West.
It’s not quite a case of export or die, but the West needs to start selling domestic goods to eager Chinese consumers. The market is here to be tapped. Here in the UK we need to start getting serious about making things again, and fast.