Belt and Road promises to open up Asia like never before

Other than the takeover of Reading FC by the Dai siblings, the big announcement coming out of China this month that will change the world as we know it was the 900 billion dollar “One Belt, One Road” project.

Sounding like a line from a syrupy U2 song, One Belt, One Road refers to a Chinese initiative of unprecedented scale that will see more than 60 countries connected through high-speed rail, bridges, harbours, tunnels, airports and goodness knows what else in the next 5 years…hyperloops and spaceports maybe. Hence “Belt” and “Road” (though confusingly the “Road” is the sea – the so-called Maritime Silk Road). As the professional world loves acronyms, One Belt, One Road is also known as OBOR, not to be mistaken for something cobbled together by the banking sector.

While the name doesn’t translate well into English, OBOR has a clear enough vision and even a template from the past: the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe, when bearded traders slugged over mountains with camels and spices, and told fantastic tales.

Marco Polo was a long time ago, of course, and today’s Central Asian countries, the “stans” from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, are relatively unknown to travellers even through they account for a huge chunk of the globe.

Gleaming new highways built with OBOR money might change that, in time helping to make those flyover states between East and West even more appealing destinations. If anything, that midlife London-Kathmandu bike trip should be a less arduous experience.

Railways are shrinking the map further. Earlier this year, the first ever direct train service from China to the UK arrived in Barking after 17 days, passing through 10 countries on a 7,456 mile trip. This was just a freight service., however, and there’s no sign of a commercial service any time soon, which is perhaps just as well: just imagine trying to buy a ticket to China from a train station machine (it’s hard enough finding the right fare from Reading to Oxford).

Commercial bullet train services will, however, string together countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the ubiquity of today’s low-cost airlines, Southeast Asia is not an easy region to navigate.

OBOR will connect Jakarta to Bandung, Indonesia’s third biggest city and creative capital, through a high-speed rail project opening in 2019. More spectacular still, a high-speed line will connect Singapore with Kunming in southern China (Singapore Kunming Rail Link, “SKRL”), through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

The 3,000km project will include sections such as Singapore – Kuala Lumpur and Kuala Lumpur – Bangkok. SKRL will, in a sense, “unlock” cities along its route – like the Laotian capital Vientiane – making them more accessible and propelling them into the future. Backpacking through Mekong countries will never be the same again.

Of course, a lot of this might not happen. The world is complicated enough and fraught with uncertainty. But if there is one thing we all need right now, it’s optimism. And OBOR optimism doesn’t get bouncier than this:

Le Wagon hosts digital nomad meetup in Shanghai

X-Space in Shanghai

The digital nomad movement is normally associated with spiritual places like Bali and Chiang Mai, rather than the financial hubs of this world – and for good reason. But as the name suggests, digital nomadism denotes location independence, and so the trend is rapidly finding its way into our big cities where you’re more likely to encounter a football field than a rice field.

And big cities frankly don’t come much bigger than Shanghai, a heaving megalopolis of 24 million souls (more than double the population of Belgium, or eight times the population of Wales, if you prefer), the scene of an upcoming digital nomad meetup.

On 11 May, coding bootcamp specialists Le Wagon Shanghai will deliver a free evening of digital nomadism talks on how to take advantage of our “ultra-connected world to work whatever suits freelancers”. The event will be held at bar/cafe/hipster space X-Space, Jiangning Road near Fengxian Lu, which has the added kudos of being located in my former neighbourhood.

Beginning at 7pm, the evening will include a snapshot of the key challenges relating to the digital nomad lifestyle in Shanghai, short talks from digital nomads on remote work, Q&A and drinks (obviously).

(With special thanks to Brian Tam for alerting me to this.)

From Shanghai to Changchun: cities in China that most appeal to foreigners

West Lake, Hangzhou

In these Brexit times, China is a land of opportunity, but where to even begin? It’s not all Shenzhen and Shanghai (former British PM David Cameron visited Southwest China with his business delegation).

A cursory look at a map of East Asia will reveal a territory of mindboggling size. I once took a flight from Shanghai on the east coast to Chengdu – not even in China’s geographic centre – and landed in Sichuan 3.5 hours later. That’s like going from London to Kiev. A flight from Shanghai to Urumqi will meanwhile take 5.5 hours – the same as going from London to Amman in the Middle East.

A former colleague once asserted that China was more a continent than a country – and I could see his point. Twice the size of the EU (yes, including Britain) and surprisingly diverse, China is also the world’s most populous nation.

Each of China’s provinces could be considered a country in its own right. Take Shanghai – a city whose population exceeds Australia’s – a sprawling society with a thriving economy, its own identity and a language (Shanghainese) spoken by 14 million people (more than the number of native Czech speakers). Shanghai is a virtual country.

And it’s Shanghai where most foreigners gravitate to, according to a new survey. A report released by “China Society for Research on International Professional Personnel Exchange and Development” reveals the cities with most appeal to foreigners living and working in China, based on criteria such as living environment and local culture. The top 10 is as follows:

  1. Shanghai
  2. Beijing
  3. Hangzhou
  4. Qingdao
  5. Tianjin
  6. Shenzhen
  7. Suzhou
  8. Guangzhou
  9. Nanjing
  10. Changchun

If anyone is wondering, like I was, about tenth-placed Changchun, I can tell you that it’s the capital of Jilin province, bordering Russian and North Korea. Changchun is home to some 7.6 million, making it slightly bigger than Hong Kong. It’s also an important industrial base, known in China as the “City of Automobiles”.

It would be no surprise to see more cities appeal in the years to come, as foreigners explore more of the country. Some China urban areas are seemingly sprouting from nowhere, like volcanic islands rising from the sea, while other cities, from Beihai to Dezhou, are busy putting themselves on the international map.

And finally, while I’m not resident in China, of the 10 cities listed above my vote would go to Qingdao. Beaches, seafood and fresh Tsingtao beer served straight from the keg in takeaway bags.

Beyond Brexit: global opportunities in China and Southeast Asia

Article 50 has been triggered and the UK is now on the long road to Brexit nirvana, whatever that looks like.

The path ahead is more likely to be one of those twisty-turny, gut-wrenching mountain roads than the fast lane of a motorway, with no clear vision of where the final post-Brexit destination will be, when this fabled destination will be reached, or even if the Brexit bus will arrive in one piece. It might lose a wing mirror – or worse.

As familiar pastures recede into the distance, the Brexit bus will climb higher through the mist, and the air temperature will drop a little. There will be signs of ice. Mountain goats from the past will clatter down the rocks from their lofty perch to butt in the conversation, though unlikely to topple the Brexit bus altogether.

Bus on a mountain road

Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, old symbols from the past will be revived. There is talk of the navy British passport coming back (though a passport cover is just as effective; mine is black – which is neither blue nor burgundy, and frankly no one in the world cares what colour the British passport is). Bizarrely and worryingly, there are growing tensions over Gibraltar.

But we can’t go back to 1982. Looking past the cranks and the hotheads on both sides of the Brexitian fence, there are intriguing global opportunities to explore for UK-based Brits and EU citizens alike – and where better to begin than in today’s most exciting “emerging” markets in East Asia.

China

Relations between Britain and China have come a long way in recent years, which is just as well, as good terms will likely come in handy. There is much talk of a “golden era”, symbolised by President Xi and then British PM David Cameron enjoying a bilateral pint down the pub in late 2015 before the cameras (Green King IPA sales later went through the roof in China and the pub was bought by the Chinese).

The Chinese premier later participated in a photo op with Cameron and Man City’s star striker Sergio Aguero in what was arguably the most surreal selfie in modern times. It’s fair to say that he is still going strong, while Cameron and Aguero have been sidelined, with more than one goal missed…

China and Britain have since made a fresh commitment to promote free trade as both countries speed up efforts to start the golden era for real, according to Xinhua, and there are indications that things are taking off.

Taking off literally in the case of the new flights announced in March from London to Guangzhou and Manchester to Beijing. Meanwhile a delegation of 60 high-net-worth entrepreneurs from China will be visiting London in June to seek opportunities for investment and partnerships with British SMEs.

But let’s focus on everyday people.

Young Brits are already doing incredible things in China. Leading the way in telling their story is the British Council, who interviewed Christopher Colman, a young British animator who moved to China upon graduation, and published a piece by British fashion designer Stephanie Lawson on launching a brand in China and “surviving”.

An earlier article tells of an English language assistant in China who had come up with a sustainable bamboo clothing and accessories brand, Mabboo, in between classes and plans to take it global.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, the most eclectic of regions, has traditionally offered something for everyone over the decades, from bankers to beachgoers. In global terms, it’s growing in influence: Asean is now the UK’s 8th biggest export market worth $17.4 billion in 2015, more than twice the value of UK shipments to India.

With a rapidly evolving landscape, Southeast Asia looks same same, but different. Hubs like Singapore no longer have such a commanding appeal in the region, though the resilient Lion City will continue to roar as always.

Indonesia

Take Indonesia, for example, one of the “BRICS” when the term was still popular. A strategic partner of the UK, the sprawling archipelago is the world’s fourth most populous country and expected by PwC to jump from 8th to 4th biggest global economy by 2050.

With 80 million social media users, the nation is among the biggest users of Facebook and Twitter in the world. Jakarta itself is said to be the Twitter capital of the world – take that, London.

Jakarta and Bali have thriving coworking scenes, and the Hindu island in particular is a big draw for digital nomads, attracted to its spiritual vibe and charm. Hubud and Coworkation are just two among several coworking options that have surfaced in recent years.

Malaysia

Hopping now across the Straits of Malacca (mind the container ship), where Malaysia is also of special interest to the UK. In recent days both countries affirmed their commitment to enhancing ties post-Brexit.

One of Southeast Asia’s more alluring countries (I have my own special relationship with their culture), Malaysia has compelling tech opportunities in Kuala Lumpur and vibrant northern neighbour Penang. Jobbatical frequently advertises opportunities with Malaysian startups.

If you are still studying, good news – KL is the most affordable city in the world for students, according to the annual QS Best Student Cities 2017.

Another hop, though technically two – one across the mountains and another across the sea – will take you to mystical Borneo. Kuching, a tranquil city not far from Singapore, has been described as “the next Chiang Mai“, Asia’s digital nomad hotspot, and the famous laksa isn’t bad either.

Thailand

Which must make Chiang Mai the next Bangkok. Possibly. Thailand’s cultural capital is a magnet for location independent workers, and it’s not difficult to see why, with its food scene, quality of life and affordability. Nomad List ranks Chiang Mai top worldwide for remote workers.

Koh Lanta, near Krabi in Thailand’s south, takes the idyll a step further – unlike Bali and Chiang Mai, KoHub remote workers can enjoy mile after mile of golden sand.

But Thailand appeals even if you’re not a digital nomad. In recent days it was announced that the Thai government is offering British expats a 20 year residency permit. The package, which costs £481 pounds a year on top of a £48,138 one-off fee, will include a VIP fast track on matters relating to driving licence, work permit and immigration.

Two decades might be excessive for some, A 10 year permit is also available for £24,066, in addition to an annual fee, and a 5 year permit is available for £12,033.

The Thai government agency, speaking to the Press Association, explains:

I think that Brexit will give us an opportunity to even open more, or to introduce Thailand even on a broader scale … you can live in Thailand for up to 20 years if you’d like to, therefore it would be a good opportunity for both countries, in terms of UK people and the Thai people.

What have I missed?

Ringy001 removes language confusion for expats in China

Shanghai

In my last post, I wrote of Pilot, a new device from Waverly Labs that would allow the wearer to receive an instant translation of a foreign voice in their ear. At the time of writing, Chinese (in any form), was not included among translatable languages.

But there is another way for those who need Mandarin or Cantonese translated while in China, and it’s an eminently sensible one. It’s the old way – simply asking someone – brought to the 21st century through WeChat, China’s current digital obsession.

While living in China, I often struggled with the language. I have more than one story of sheer linguistic frustration, from being stuck in a cab outside Suzhou and making choo-choo sounds to the driver, to having to deal with someone from a utility company knocking on my door at around 7am on a Saturday morning.

The only solution, I found, was to call a very understanding friend – rather like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And so, my friend very patiently spoke to the taxi driver / utility lady / handyman, and kindly translated my washing machine for me.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only foreigner doing it this way. A young speaker I met last month at a WeChat conference in Hong Kong, Swan Huang, told that me she started her business Ringy001 as a result of expats asking her for urgent translation support.

Through finding and following “Ringy001” on WeChat – the most comprehensive and sophisticated messaging app in the world, that does everything apart from make toast – non Chinese-speakers can request a free translation or instant communication from a native speaker, by sending a message.

Of course, there is a better solution still: learn the lingo. If you have any intention of moving to China and staying in China, do the right thing and take language and cultural orientation classes. An app can only take you so far.