E-commerce minister chases digital dragon

Stephen Timms wants to entice Chinese technology firms to build factories in the UK, and is also looking to improve British IT exports to China

The e-commerce minister, Stephen Timms, has embarked on a visit to the Far East to try and persuade Chinese high-tech companies to set up operations in the UK.

Timms has also urged British technology companies to take advantage of the massive potential of China as a marketplace for their products and services.

During the five-day trip, which started on Sunday, Timms will discuss information communications technology (ICT) issues with Chinese government ministers, and will also meet with some of China's top technology firms. One of his top objectives is to encourage such firms to build factories in the UK.

"We need to raise the profile of the UK ICT's sector in China. In some areas, such as mobile communications and digital TV technology, it is the UK and Europe who are world leaders. With our world class R&D base, our highly skilled labour and our competitive market, we are the ideal location for China's blossoming ICT industry. But we need to work hard to get this message home," said Timms in a statement.

Several parts of the UK successfully attracted foreign technology firms to build factories in their area during the 1990s, often aided by government grants. Significant numbers of these firms have since responded to the tech slump by shutting their British plants -- hitting Scotland's Silicon Glen particularly hard.

China operates a restrictive policy to the Internet, under which Web cafes must install software that blocks access to restricted sites -- including those run by some foreign news organisation and pro-democracy campaigners. The surfing of pornographic Web sites is also banned.

Despite this, the number of Chinese Internet users rose by 300 percent in the last 12 months, and mobile phone use is also booming. With 170 million users, China's mobile sector is the largest in the world.

The UK government believes that China represents an opportunity that British tech firms must grasp, at a time when sales of PCs and mobile phones to Western consumers are disappointing.

"China is rapidly becoming a digital dragon," said Timms. "Following their entry to the World Trade Organisation, China is becoming more open for business. Our strength in areas such as electronic design, digital content, mobile communications and digital TV match the needs of the Chinese market," the e-commerce minister added.

Last year, UK ICT exports to China were worth almost £400m, more than twice as much as in 2000.

For a round-up of the latest tech business coverage, see the Business News Section.

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