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Cultural and Friendship Visit to China, April 2006

By Andreas Udbye, World Trade Center Tacoma

 

 

A group of 16 Washingtonians set out for China in the morning of Monday, April 3. The group was headed by Washington's Secretary of State Sam Reed and his wife Margie, and this was their third mission to China in five years. Although the mission had a significant element of trade promotion and development, it was decided to call it a "cultural and friendship" mission due to its exploratory nature. The other participants came both from the public and private sectors, and included the following:

  • Mark Foutch, Mayor of Olympia
  • Janet Charles-Foutch, Mayor's wife and Research Technician with WA State
  • Dept. of Natural Resources
  • Carolyn Ableman, Chief Deputy Auditor, Snohomish County
  • Jim Andrews, Chief of Police, City of University Place
  • Ron Chow, President, Seattle Pacific Trading, and one of the mission organizers
  • Jae Chung, Partner, Retail Restaurant Development
  • Marlo DeLange, Attorney, Vandeberg Johnson & Gandara
  • Shane Hamlin, Special Assistant to Secretary of State
  • Scot Harrison, Owner, Rainier Fisheries
  • Paul Robson, Attorney, U.S. Army
  • Craig Soper, Finance Manager, King County
  • Andreas Udbye, Executive Director, World Trade Center Tacoma
  • Chi Wang, International Trade Specialist, World Trade Center Tacoma
  • Val Wood, Info Services & Administrative Manager, Snohomish County

 

In addition, in Hong Kong we were joined by the main organizer of this mission, David Chong, a trade consultant based in Hong Kong. David was also involved in organizing Sam Reed's China missions in 2001 and 2002. In Hainan Province, another dozen Chinese business people joined us for most of the rest of the mission.

In addition to developing and nurturing concrete business relationships, another purpose of this mission was to initialize discussions about Chinese sister cities for Olympia and Steilacoom.

This mission took us to provinces that most of us had never been to before, namely Hainan Province (the southernmost province of China) and Fujian Province, a coastal province about half way between Hong Kong and Shanghai. The last day of the mission would be spent in Beijing.

Day 1 (Monday, April 3, 2006):

The organizers chose to book us on United's non-stop San Francisco - Hong Kong flight. The alternative would have been to fly from Seattle via Tokyo, but the connecting flight would not have arrived in Hong Kong until 11:00 pm. The nice thing about the flight from San Francisco is that it arrived at 6 pm, which gave us enough time to cross the Chinese border and check into our hotel in Shenzhen at a reasonable time. The bad thing about this flight is that it takes 14 long hours, and we got to know our seats in economy class really well by the time we touched down.

My seat (33A) probably had the least leg room of any flight I have ever taken, domestically or overseas. I could not even reasonably read a book when the passenger in front of me decided to recline his seat. The good news is it was a window seat, which I prefer, and after about an hour the guy in the middle seat decided to sit somewhere else. So I made myself a tiny cave in my little corner of the plane. The plane seemed about 90% full. Upgrades, by the way, are practically impossible to get these days. Too many people paying top dollar to go to Asia, and us bottom trawlers paying $6-700 sort of get what we pay for. This is a good sign for the airlines and the economy.

The time difference to China was 15 hours, and we arrived there in the evening.

Day 2 (Tuesday, April 4, 2006):

After collecting our luggage and clearing customs in Hong Kong, we piled into three minivans to be driven to the Chinese border town of Shenzhen. The drive takes about 45 minutes, and the border crossing took probably no more than 20 minutes. We could remain in the vehicles while both the Hong Kong and Chinese immigration officials checked our passports and visas. All we had to do was leave the light on in the vehicles so the officers could see our faces and match us to the stack of passports handed to them.
The hotel (Vienna) was only a two minute drive from the border. The nightly rate of 275 yuan for decent rooms was very reasonable (about US$ 35), and the hotel can be recommended for business travelers who don't need a lot of space, health clubs, etc. The beds were hard, though, and we compared them to sheets of plywood.

Day 3 (Wednesday, April 5, 2006):

After a decent night's sleep, my morning jog and a large breakfast (great buffet!), we borded a bus for transit to the Shenzhen airport and our flight to Haikou on Hainan Island. Shenzhen is a very modern, bustling city with a young working age population, but does not offer the traveler much in terms of cultural or scenic experiences. The air was cleaner than I had feared.

The flight to Hainan was about one hour, on a fairly new 737-800. Hainan island is China's Hawaii, with a very similar, tropical climate, vegetation and sandy beaches. The modern airport is at Haikou, the provincial capital with close to a million people. We were ushered into a very luxurious and tastefully decorated VIP room, before the half hour bus ride down to our city for the next two days, Wenchang. Wenchang is spread out over 1,600 square miles and has a population of about 550,000. The city produces half of China's coconuts, and has great and uncrowded beaches, at least this time of the year. The low season goes from April to the fall.
The heat and humidity of Hainan are not conducive to wool suits and neck ties, and fortunately our hosts are also dressed relatively business casually. Nice slacks, nice shirts, no jackets. At the banquet dinner on Wednesday night, however, we all put on our nicest attires.

Some other pertinent facts about Wenchang and the Hainan province:

  • The province itself consists of the big Hainan Island and many other smaller islands in the South China Sea.
  • The fishing resource is enormous. More than 40 species are harvested. Tilapia farming is catching on.
  • The natural and lush environment here makes it easier to grow organic and healthy foods, and the province seems to have a declared strategy to bring natural and healthy agricultural products to market. Examples are coconuts, rubber, melons, peppers, pineapples and other tropical fruits, coffee and sugar.
  • The bird flu has not affected this province, and Hainan has a goal of raising and selling at least 100 million free range chickens annually.
  • Although the City of Wenchang only has 560,000 inhabitants, about 1.3 million people from this city reside abroad or in other provinces of China. The city leaders seemed proud of this, and kept mentioning it often. However, the large migration could also be a sign of a weak job market here, and indeed they mentioned that they historically have been facing a brain drain situation.
  • Wenchang is the birth place of many famous women, including Shang Kai Chek's wife. Also, as many as 150 generals in the Red Army were born here.
  • Educational opportunities are an important priority for the City's current Mayor, Dr. Zhang Detong. The high school system is excellent, and many students are admitted into China's top universities, but the local system of colleges and vocational schools has to be improved and expanded. English training is also a major priority.
  • Tourism as another and growing source of income and employment. We toured a large, new beachfront development, with hundreds of condominium units in a park like setting. The complex was under construction, but the sheer size of it is impressive. 500 square foot units sell for about $35,000.
  • Another source of revenue for this area is silica extraction. This is used for the production of silicone and glass. Their sand is supposedly very high quality for its purpose.

On Wednesday evening, after touring the area, we were treated to a classic, Chinese banquet, with 14 dishes and lots of toasting with Chinese red wine. Later that evening it seems one of the mission delegates managed to find himself a new customer for frozen sockeye salmon. Maybe the mission is already bearing tangible fruit?

Day 4 (Thursday, April 6, 2006):

Even the breakfasts are large buffet meals, but the food is healthy and low fat. Mid morning we had a large meeting with City officials presenting our respective areas, and discussed a planned sister city relationship between Steilacoom and Wenchang. Gifts were exchanged. The luncheon was another large buffet, but I was too stuffed from breakfast and decided to check my 200 incoming e-mails in my inbox. This time I was actually able to access our secure website and remotely work on our server. But the connection was s..l..o..w.., which is a recurring problem in China.

The afternoon was spent at the large Wenchang High School, where we were given a briefing, sat through an English class, and spent some individual time with the students. This public school had 5,600 students ages 16-18, who were lodged in on-campus housing. The school took up an area of about 250 acres, and is currently building more dormitories to be able to grow to 7,000 students.

The English teacher did a good job of instructing his class of 54 students. The school is looking to find Americans who would be willing to come and teach English there for a year. The pay is not high, but lodging and food are included.

The city center of Wenchang is quite charming, with a canal (polluted) running through it, lined by small street cafes. I was trying to find a memory stick for my new digital camera, so I could take more photos, but no store in this town seems to carry digital camera stuff. Other things to shop for are pearls, shoes and clothing, but the overall selection was fairly limited. This is not a particularly wealthy city with lots of tourists, so the retail selection seems quite basic.

There is a lot of eating going on here, and the evening included yet another dinner buffet. Great food! The Mayor of Wenchang has been with us the whole time. He is a great and enthusiastic man.

Day 5 (Friday, April 7, 2006):

This is the day we transferred from the Hainan Province to the Fujian Province, but only after a busy program on the island. In the morning we were given a tour of the old city, and after lunch we transferred north to Haikou City, where we had a chance to shop for natural pearls. Many of the delegates took this chance and bought several strings of pearls for family, friends and colleagues.

The dinner was with the provincial government at a luxurious seaside resort by Haikou. Sumptuous table, 14 superb dishes, lots of toasting in Chinese wine and liquor, etc. The dinner was hosted by Haikou's vice Governor.

The largest export from WA State to Hainan will be wheat when a $100 million flour mill is completed in the Haikou area. This mill will have a huge need to import its raw materials from abroad.

In the evening we flew from Haikou to Xiamen in a 737 owned by Xiamen Airlines. The drive from Xiamen to Zhangzhou was an hour, so we did not check into the hotel (Xiang Jiang Hotel) until after midnight. Unfortunately we could not sleep in Saturday morning, as Sam Reed and I had to get an early start to drive north to Fuzhou.

Day 6 (Saturday, April 8, 2006):

Zhangzhou is a relatively large city that very few people in America have ever heard of. It is located about 40 miles or so west of the more famous port city of Xiamen, in the southeastern corner of the Fujian Province. Some people keep telling me that on a clear day you can actually see the Island of Taiwan from the hills around Xiamen, but I have my doubts. In any case, with the humidity and air pollution, it rarely gets clear enough here so actually see that far.

On my morning jog on Saturday I concluded that Zhangzhou has some nice sides to it, including some inviting parks and not too much traffic. It is a 1300 year old city, with a population of 4.7 million. Many people currently residing in Taiwan came from this area, or their parents or grandparents did. Taiwan's current leadership, in fact, have roots in this town, including the KMT Chair and the current president, Mr. Chen.

The city's economy is heavily dependent on food processing (1/4 of its output). Many types of agricultural and fisheries products are being processed into products ready for distribution and consumption. Half of the food processing output is being exported. Other important industries include production of machinery, as well as autos, ships, hydropower equipment, clocks/watches and auto parts. More basic production includes steel, cement and plastics compounds. In short, a well diversified, industrial base quite typical for many larger, coastal Chinese cities. The city has estimated that its total export value runs at about $300 million per year. The U.S. is the number one customer, buying about 1/3 of the exports.

Not many foreign tourists make it to this city, which is a pity, as the city has parks with interesting volcanic landscapes, historic cliff writings and a castle.

Most of our group went on factory tours during the day, while Sam Reed, Chi Wang, David Chong and I drove all the way up to Tacoma's sister city Fuzhou for a luncheon with city officials. I now have an “eat my words” statement to make: After I visited the Fujian Province in the fall of 2004, I wrote something negative about the standard of the highway between Xiamen and Fuzhou (after a bumpy ride in an old bus I wrote that China needed to improve its road construction techniques). After the 3 ½ hour ride on the same road today, I can unequivocally say that the problem was not the road standard, but rather the shock absorbers of the bus they used two years ago! The ride was great, and just as smooth as any American 4-lane highway, and I apologize for being so quick to criticize the road in 2004. It probably also helped that Sam Reed and I rode in the backseat of a Mercedes S600, but even a Yugo would have provided a fairly comfortable ride on this road.

Even the leather seats of a fat Mercedes become uncomfortable after seven hours in them, but the actual ride up and down today was very nice. I enjoy the scenery of a relatively wealthy Chinese province, and it is interesting to watch the many small farms along the way.

In Fuzhou we were treated to an excellent luncheon with city and county officials at the new Shangri-la Hotel. I will be returning to our friends in Fuzhou in May to attend the first two days of their annual Scientific Trade Show.

After an uneventful drive back to Zhangzhou, we attended a meeting with the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce there, as well as a nice dinner with City and trade officials. We are hoping that this will be a future sister city for Olympia.

In the evening we ended up singing karaoke with our new friends from the City and the Chamber. This Japanese tradition seems popular all over Asia now.

Day 7 (Sunday, April 9, 2006):

The morning was spent visiting and touring a tea company and its museum in the foothills outside of Zhangzhou. This was a Taiwanese owned, impressive operation with a large network of franchise outlets in many countries. Sort of the Starbucks of the tea business. It is called the TenFu Group, and sells a variety of teas and snacks containing green tea. Check out their website at www.tenfu.com.

Later that day we visited a local artist, and in the evening we were special guests at the annual dinner of the Chamber of Commerce in town. Even more of a special guest was the Chinese National Volleyball team, whose ladies team we were told had just won the World Championships. Some of those ladies were seven feet tall, which is obviously a rarity in China.

This became an early night, as our departure for Beijing was at 5:30 in the morning.

Day 8 (Monday, April 10, 2006):

The plane ride to Beijing was about 2 ½ hours, and comfortable enough. We were all in economy class, which is at least as comfortable as economy class on domestic U.S. flights. When I travel on my own (and with lots of luggage), I sometimes buy first class on the Chinese domestic flights. It is only 50% more (e.g. $150 instead of $100 for a fairly long flight), and gives you several tangible benefits: No check-in lines, no limits on luggage, comfortable departure lounges, meaningful food on board, and first on and off the airplane. So you can easily justify the $50 increment.

Beijing is such a busy and sprawling city. After a luncheon with our old friend (from the 2001 and 2002 missions) Mr. Zhu, the group split in three: Some went to the Wall, some went shopping, and Sam Reed, Ron Chow and I had an audience with the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Yang Jiechi. He was the former Ambassador to the U.S., and of course very easy to communicate with. We had a nice visit, where we reaffirmed the important trade and social relations between WA State and China. In addition, I invited Mr. Yang to be our keynote speaker to next year's Globe Awards Dinner, and mentioned our hope that we one day would see a Chinese Consulate in Seattle. It was a great honor and privilege for us to be able to have this meeting with the Vice Minister, thanks to our Beijing hosts, the CAIFC (China Association for International Friendly Contact). One of their executives, Mr. Ren Qimin, accompanied us to the meeting.

In the evening we were hosted by CAIFC to a unique dinner at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, in one of the many lodges located within this government owned and gated park-like compound. Only official dignitaries and guests of the state are entertained here, and it was a memorable experience.

We stayed at the new He Qiao Ritz Hotel, which I can highly recommend for its location (the Chaoyang District), standard and room size. The rooms were actually bi-level, with a living room and kitchenette downstairs and a large bedroom and bath upstairs. We were only really there for a few hours, to sleep, so most of the rooms' amenities never came to use.

Day 9 (Monday, April 11, 2006):

The morning started out with a breakfast briefing by the U.S. Commercial Service. The Commercial Attache, Mr. David Gossack, gave us a superb update on some timely trade and political issues. For example, it was interesting to hear about the Chinese Government's attempts to fight software piracy. For instance, a new rule is that the operating system (e.g. Windows XP) has to be preloaded and bundled when you buy a new PC in China. This will prevent computer buyers from running out of the computer store to buy a $10 (or less) pirated copy of the operating system down the road. He also informed us that more and more foreign investors are now in the process of buying 100% control of their Chinese subsidiaries, which is now permissible under the WTO rules.
Mr. Gossack was also concerned that the official trade statistics between China and the U.S. give a somewhat misleading picture. A great share of the imports from China to the U.S. is generated by American owned companies there, and often times American components are used in their manufacture. Also, American firms export large quantities from Chinese plants to other countries. This means the capital flow back to the U.S. is probably better than what the cold export and import numbers indicate.

I cannot stress this enough: The U.S. Commercial Service is a jewel, grossly under funded, but a fantastic resource for the American taxpayers.

The flights back to Seattle were uneventful, comfortable enough (only 12 hours in a crammed economy class seat from Beijing to San Francisco). The plane was not as full as when we went over there one week earlier. I managed to forget one of my textbooks in the seat pocket in front of me. If you find it, please let me know.

"Please note the following disclaimer:  The mission reports are written during or right after the missions by mission participants.  The views, comments and statements in the reports are solely their own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or any official positions of this office.  The reports are reproduced here because they give an interesting and detailed account of the day-to-day experiences and impressions that participants typically encounter on these missions."