When I first hear that my well-heeled Surrey neighbourhood is receiving aid from China, I assume it must be a hoax. I don’t believe it until I see a press release from the borough council confirming that the Dongying municipal government has made a £5,660 donation to help the unskilled and socially excluded of Guildford through projects including bicycle-mending.
Ever get the feeling you are living in a parallel universe and that the world you once understood a little bit has left you behind, in terms of the dwindling sense that it makes? Who’s funding who in the overseas aid fandango is one of the great mysteries of globalisation that can make you feel like you are going stark, staring mad.
The stockbrokers of Surrey ended up on the receiving end of Chinese charity after Guildford borough council ‘partnered’ itself with Dongying, a city of two million people in Shandong province in eastern China, where the average professional salary is a few hundred pounds a month. Why they did that is all part of the mystery. Dongying is home to the Shengli oil field, the China University of Petroleum and a range of heavy industries whose links with Guildford are not immediately obvious. Nevertheless, council leaders said it was essential to forge links and set off there for some ‘fact-finding’.
Their trip cost taxpayers £7,134 in flights and accommodation: on the face of it more than swallowing up the Chinese donation — and causing a stir in the genteel streets of Guildford and its surrounding chocolate box villages. Some complained it was a most dreadful humiliation.
But council leader Paul Spooner insists that the donation assists the council’s do-gooding arm, ‘Guildford Philanthropy’, which improves the lives of some of Surrey’s ‘most vulnerable and less-advantaged residents’. Guildford Philanthropy lists only two projects, the first being Glade, a work experience scheme needed because ‘although Guildford has been judged one of the luxury towns of the UK there are around 4,000 people with no qualifications. Some parts of the borough are the most deprived in Surrey.’
That is not going to get any pulses racing in Jeremy Corbyn’s office, but never mind. The other project the Chinese will be helping to fund is called the Guildford Bike Project. This takes donations of unwanted bikes from the general public, fixes them up and sells them back to the community at an affordable price. But hang on just a minute — with the aid of money from China?
The film shows a young chap in nicely pressed overalls working on an upside-down bike, explaining how this project has changed his life: ‘Well, it goes on my CV.’
‘You get your own bike at the end of it, you know,’ says another fellow.
‘It’s not the same pressure as having a real job or anything,’ says a sloaney-looking girl.
‘We’ve created a market for second-hand bikes in Guildford that didn’t exist before,’ says a project organiser.
Yes, well. I think we’ve got the picture.
‘There are nine million bicycles in Beijing,’ as Katie Melua sang. ‘That’s a fact, it’s a thing we can’t deny.’ And there are now hundreds of second-hand bicycles in Guildford reassembled with money from China. And that’s just stir-fry crazy. Not least because Britain is still sending millions of pounds of aid every year to China. The government doesn’t admit this, of course. Officially, we said aid would stop in 2011 after the Chinese stepped up their space programme. But, behind the scenes, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money still finds its way to China under other guises. The Department for International Development has been spending £8-10 million a year to support China ‘becoming a more effective leader’, with further money pumped in through the Prosperity Fund. And now they’re sending us money back. There are, according to Mr Spooner, 50 other partnerships between UK local authorities and China, although I wasn’t able to verify that.
Of course, if you believe local councils just twin themselves with remote Chinese petro-chemical towns in return for some help with local bike-mending schemes, or to go on a jolly, you are perhaps a little naive, especially when you consider the presentational difficulties. Guildford is inundated with twinning offers. Versailles is currently making overtures. But no, Dongying it is, where there are rumours of human rights violations, and worst of all, as one councillor opposed to the scheme tells me, there might even be a dog-eating festival.
I put this to the council and they will neither confirm or deny it. Mr Spooner says: ‘It’s important to remember that there are differences in cultures across the world, and what seems strange, controversial or unacceptable to some is part of other peoples’ heritage.’
I wouldn’t count on the people of Surrey embracing dog-skinning as cultural heritage. Surely, if you are going to accept that, you might be better bringing back fox hunting?
No, it doesn’t make sense. With all the bother, there must be a better reason for accepting five grand from China. Opponents of the arrangement, including local Tories, allege it must be to do with land deals and Chinese eagerness to find safe investments. But when I put this to the council they explicitly deny it and state very clearly that no land will be sold to the Chinese.
Another theory that occurred to me centres on China being the fastest-growing destination for British recyclables. Currently, Guildford sends almost all its recycling waste to one leading British firm. However, the three neighbouring councils send their paper waste to China, where although the environmental impact is less certain, the price they pay is much higher.
Dongying’s major industries include paper manufacturing, rubber production, textiles, and it has a number of firms importing waste materials. But when I ask Guildford council if it has discussed recycling possibilities as part of its links with Dong-ying, I am given a firm no.
So I’m back to square one. I don’t pretend to understand any of it, or to have got anywhere near a valid reason for accepting charity from China. All I know is what I am being told: the Chinese have sent the people of Surrey five grand (of their own money back) to mend bicycles. I suppose that makes no less sense than anything else about the overseas aid programme.