Birmingham – Guangzhou sister cities: Celebrating a decade of blossoming ties

This year Birmingham is celebrating its 50th anniversary of being twinned with Frankfurt. However, 2016 also marks a rapidly flourishing partnership Birmingham and Guangzhou, China’s third largest city. 

Guangzhou’s importance politically, culturally and economically to China is not to be underestimated. Whereas Birmingham is the birthplace of the world’s Industrial Revolution, Guangzhou is a city region that has undergone its own rapid transformation in recent years.  A city home to 13 million people, with an additional 27 million people living in its suburbs, Guangzhou has thrived in the past three decades growing exponentially year on year.  

Since the launch of the partnership a decade ago, ties between the West Midlands and China have grown rapidly. The highlight of this was the launch of the partnership between Birmingham University and the Guangzhou's municipal government, representing Birmingham’s most significant engagement with China in its history.

This partnership centred on the creation of The University of Birmingham Guangzhou Centre in 2011, which covers co-operation in areas of research, education and technology transfer. It has been an overwhelming success, characterised by the work led by world renowned geologist Li Siguang, who studied at the University of Birmingham.

Li, is an example of what the partnership has achieved in terms of mutual prosperity and development. He led the discovery and exploitation of China’s fuel reserves and internationally has laid the bedrock for the study of geological plate dynamics. This success has developed into the Li Siguang Scholarship program offering four students the chance to develop research into science and technology every year.

The development of the Birmingham Guangzhou Centre demonstrates the positive outcomes both the UK and China can achieve when we look to build partnerships, overcoming cultural and political differences. The experience of Li Siguang and the role that Birmingham played in his studies shows that such partnerships can produce work which will help develop our understanding of science, nature and technology leading to new discoveries and the blossoming of ideas.   

Indeed, in 2011, Gong Erzhen, the then vice mayor of Guangzhou, when signing the memorandum of cooperation between the two cities summarised nicely what the partnership means to the city:

"Guangzhou attaches great importance to friendship and cooperation with the UK. We have established sister city ties with Birmingham and Bristol and are delighted to be working with the University of Birmingham to launch a collaborative centre in Guangzhou. In 2010, the foreign trade volume between Guangzhou and the UK reached $1.4 billion."

Following the agreement, the University of Birmingham established a full time office in Guangzhou. Links are not just growing in academia. Business links continue to grow between the two cities and schools engage in a series of activities around the English language and teacher training.

Guangzhou has become a key city for outbound investment into the West Midlands with several significant trade deals being made over the past few years. The opening of flight links between Birmingham and China will continue to help develop trade links and further the cultural ties which have developed over the past decade.

Birmingham City Council has also helped to train over 200 of Guangzhou civil servants in cooperation with the Institute of Local Government Studies. Even in sport and culture, the links are growing, Chinese companies now sponsor both WBA and Aston Villa. The Longbridge Lights Festival, one of the UK’s biggest, is now supported by Guangzhou who are working in partnership with EC arts, a leading arts company based in Birmingham. 

Even Birmingham’s new iconic library, is working with the Library of Guangzhou, on an exchange of photographic exhibitions which will be presented in both cities. Birmingham will display 150 years of photography documenting many Guangzhou sites and landmarks, from the first photographs taken during the Anglo-French North China Expedition of 1860 to this day.

The Birmingham-Guangzhou model has been a huge success. The West Midlands and China enjoy a growing trade relationship, with China displaying an insatiable appetite for West Midlands products, in addition to blossoming cultural links. Birmingham is known the world over for its industrial and entrepreneurial spirit, which China is now discovering through these links.