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Chinese entrepreneur plans big UK investment

The word 'Sheffield' sits in the entrance gates to Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd. in Sheffield, northern England on August 27, 2015.  OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

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Wang Chunming is one of the richest men in China; he could soon become one of the richest investors in the British city of Sheffield — formerly the world center of steelmaking. Wang – a construction tycoon — has struck a deal with Sheffield City Council allowing him to investigate the feasibility of some real estate development deals worth more than a billion dollars.

The city, in the north of England, was once the world capital of steelmaking, but its steel companies buckled under foreign competition in the 1980s and many thousands of well paid foundry workers were thrown on to the dole.  Their plight was highlighted – to great comic effect – in the feature film  “The Full Monty”  which tells the tale of some desperate, unemployed steelmen from Sheffield who turn to striptease in order to make ends meet.

Today, 30 years after the Full Monty era,  the city has still not covered to its former economic glory. The jobless rate, although no longer  stratospheric, is higher than the national average. The city’s infrastructure is described by Wang Chunming as “not very advanced” and its transport links as “problematic.” 

Wang’s interest in the city is not fortuitous. His daughter and his son-in-law studied there. Education is now one of the biggest industries in Sheffield and has attracted tens of thousands of students from China. There’s another link between Sheffield and the People’s Republic: “Sheffield is home to the World Snooker Championship and that’s really put the place on the map for millions of Chinese,” said Richard Wright, head of the local chamber of commerce.

“As soon as you say ‘Sheffield’ the Chinese say, ‘Ah the snooker!’ There are more people watching the World Snooker Final in China than in the rest of the world put together.  It’s an enormous marketing tool,” he told Marketplace.

But while Wright and many local politicians are thrilled at  the prospect of Wang’s millions being funneled into Sheffield, the tycoon’s plans are also meeting some stiff opposition.  His proposal  to turn the city’s  art deco Central Library building into a five-star hotel has upset many residents and provoked the ire of  City Councillor Jack Clarkson of the UK Independence Party.

“Sheffield City Council is selling off our silver wear, our heritage, to the Chinese. That’s what leaves a real, bitter bad taste in my mouth,” complained Clarkson.

Tim Jones – a labor unionist — is not impressed with Wang’s hotel either. He feels it will bring only low paid service jobs to the city while China has been eroding the industrial base elsewhere in Britain:

“They’re dumping cheap Chinese subsidized steel in this country. Wouldn’t it be better instead of dumping cheap Chinese steel to start manufacturing steel in Britain?” Jones asked. 

Yet, the Chamber of Commerce’s Richard Wright is upbeat about Sheffield and Wang. “Our city is on the up. We’re doing quite well already but the Chinese investment would move us further forward and faster,” he said. 

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