Four years ago Peter Zhang was a university student in the historical English city of York. Today this silver-tongued and fresh-faced young man is the managing director of SinoFortone, a company sitting on a multibillion-dollar UK investment portfolio. Ask him about his remarkably rapid rise, or anything related to SinoFortone’s corporate strategy, funding or track record and he will first pause, then use, as at least part of his answer, the phrase “One Belt One Road.”
The answer is more than mere smokescreen. It says a lot about Zhang, about SinoFortone — and the gaggle of other Chinese conglomerates rushing into a dizzying array of construction, power, transport and leisure mega projects, in the UK and elsewhere. It says a lot about China and its global investment strategy.
President Xi Jinping rolled out the phrase in 2013 to describe the leadership’s plan to revitalize old maritime and overland trade routes, conduits that will carry US$2.5 trillion of commerce with 40 countries. Using lessons from China’s vast and often contentious multi-decade and multibillion investments in Africa and Latin America, One Belt One Road started in Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Then it extended to Europe, just before Xi’s visit to the UK in 2015. And that fabled pint of English Ale in the quintessentially quaint country pub that the young Zhang now owns.
Since purchasing the Plough in Cadsden, Zhang has been asked to pose for many pictures, always with a pint of the now very popular Greene King IPA in hand, although it’s unlikely that the supping of multiple pints was a habit he picked up in his years as a student in the UK.
At York University, he was clearly busy. He was the founder and chair of the China Innovation and Development Association that lists an impressive array of Chinese academics and economists as advisers and had, during Zhang’s tenure, access to at least Chinese consular level support.
Since 2012, the association’s alumni have started to form UK-based entities. One of these, Cocoon Networks, launched a 6,500 square meter innovation center in the City of London in December 2016 that is setting out to hothouse China-Britain technology transfers and has also launched a £500 million London-based venture capital fund that will invest in technology companies across the UK and Europe.
Professor Yu Xiong, the Chair of Technology and Operations Management in Newcastle Business School of Northumbria University, was also a founding member of CIDA and later helped, he says, establish both SinoFortone and Cocoon.
“I help run companies, I am a researcher, a professor and I advise on development policies, to both Beijing and London,” says Xiong matter of factly, when asked to explain the breadth of his professional remit.
According to Xiong, the implementation of One Belt One Road in the UK is very much a mix of private and public funding. Looking just at Cocoon Networks and SinoFortone, you see that mix clearly. “In Africa, more than half the money was from [the Chinese] state, but in the UK, although sometimes you cannot tell if they are using the state money or not, most of it is private sector. In the UK, it has to be more entrepreneurial.”
Cocoon Networks, says Xiong, was “100% privately funded”: it is backed by China Equity Fund, an early investor in Baidu, and Hanxin Capital, which specializes in cloud computing and biotech.
SinoFortone’s financing model sees “security initially coming from central government … Private companies, they are better suited to finding good projects. When they find them they can then ask the state for help. They can use state money for investment.”
He also says he is not surprised by the speed that these investments have been put into place. “We have a plan,” says Xiong. “And we follow our plan. We work at China-speed.”
For Peter Zhang, all of it — the “China-speed” pace of development following Xi’s visit in 2015 and the millimeter-perfect dovetailing of this with the UK’s own Northern Powerhouse goals — have put him in a very fortuitous position.
“Yes, we were lucky,” he says. “But long term we will build on this. The UK is a fantastic place and we will grow here and build our reputation by focusing on two key areas. One is energy, the other housing.”
“And we will continue to follow the One Belt One Road initiative.”
That, of course, goes without saying.