The significance of Xi Jinping's visit to the UK

As China’s President, Xi Jinping, begins his UK tour, Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield, who is a speaker of mandarin Chinese and recipient of an individual honour from China for his contribution to the understanding of Chinese language and culture, discusses the significance of this visit.

1. What opportunities do you think the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK offers in terms of boosting the two sides’ cooperation on science and technology?

“I don’t think the importance of the state visit of President Xi Jinping can be emphasised enough. There are a great many challenges that both nations face together, from the expansion and development of nuclear technology and advanced manufacturing techniques to confronting carbon emissions, ageing populations, and the challenges of massive urban growth.

“At a time when the UK is starting to think very hard about a Chinese-style approach to planning, infrastructure and technology upgrades, the visit of President Xi Jinping presents a perfect opportunity to develop the conversation about the key collaborations this will involve – faster high-speed trains and nuclear developments beyond the present project at Hinkley Point C – things that China and the UK can together develop to meet global needs.”

2. The last few years have seen several research projects launched collaboratively by British and Chinese universities, and Chinese companies like Huawei jointly established research labs with local universities. Do you think partnerships like this can help benefit both sides by creating greater funding opportunities for research or accelerating the process of bringing newly developed technologies like graphene to the market?

“This kind of partnership does indeed bring these benefits, and more. We have some of the world’s best facilities for developing new technologies and bringing them to market with innovative advanced manufacturing techniques. The UK’s High-Value Manufacturing Catapult centres stand at the centre of this process across the country, across a range of technologies including digital, biologics, machining, robotics, composites and additive manufacturing. Greater investment in these capabilities will ensure that industry members can bring the best technologies to market.

“At the AMRC and Nuclear AMRC, the University of Sheffield works in world-class research environments with some of the leading industry firms and top-flight experts in technological and scientific fields on robotics, advanced machining, composite materials, advanced metals, and nuclear technology.

“These centres provide foreign firms with the opportunities to localise their supply chain and their R&D capabilities, producing the world’s best components in a rigorous and efficient testing grounds, boosting trade and exports, and generating growth for manufacturing firms. We are making these sensible steps much easier for Chinese firms to do. In the UK, this growth is transferred to the local regional economy and helps to create sustainable, high-skilled jobs as well as supporting the best opportunities for advanced vocational training for young people.”

3. What is it about Britain that makes it so appealing for Chinese academic institutes and companies to find their research partners here?

“Britain already has a great academic reputation worldwide, with its many world-leading learning institutions attracting almost 90,000 students from China every year.

“In research and development, Britain’s track record does not just concern the safety and security of its technology. Britain has a pioneering approach to training and skills which draws from China’s idea of the value of the labour force, and we aim to achieve the very highest standards of higher vocational training in order to do justice to our world-class research and manufacturing capabilities, and to the local and regional economies that support our centres.

“We are also well-placed to spread a greater understanding of the culture and values that the UK and China hold in common and the many ways in which the two nations are apt partners and friends. In Sheffield, for example, this partnership with Chinese universities has given us the University’s Confucius Institute – a centre of excellence in learning about Chinese culture and language that benefits school pupils, students, academics and professionals and helps to engender a spirit of trust in Chinese industry. In the UK, Chinese partners know that they can rely on UK firms’ trust.”

4. With regards to these kinds of partnerships, what specific fields of research do you think will benefit most? Graphene, 5G and stem cell?

"I believe that it is a mistake to assume that partnership between the UK and China will be narrowly defined to the more obvious areas of technology. In Sheffield we see superb collaboration on advanced materials and manufacturing and on the challenges of climate change and the need for low carbon energy and sustainable cities.

"But this will not be achieved by a single branch of science. To become the advanced manufacturing nation that China has stated it aims to be by 2025, and to do this is a way which does not destroy quality of life, will take the discovery of new materials and how to work with these to make lighter, greener transport infrastructure for example. But it will also need the social scientists, the architects, city planners, landscape specialists who know how work with technology and science but also people to help make the sustainable, healthy environments we all appreciate.

"This is what we do in our work with Chinese partners and students. We identify how a range of disciplines can work together to solve problems which are common to us all."

5. Low carbon transition is quite a priority for China and Britain. Do you think both countries can do more in the development of clean energy technologies, besides the expected agreement on the new nuclear power station at Hinckley?

"Yes we can and we must, for the future of our children and our planet. No single approach to low carbon energy will be enough. In Sheffield we are working on wind energy, we have a solar farm and run the UK carbon capture laboratory. We are also developing our Manufacturing research partnerships which would relate to the production of small modular nuclear reactors or SMRs, which offer an alternative approach to the far bigger power stations currently under consideration.

"Our Chinese partners and friends like us want to enjoy the benefits of electricity and a modern economy, but they also understand that we cannot ignore environmental consequences. It is my sincere desire and expectation that we will develop collaboration in all these areas over the coming months and years."