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Deval heads Far East to stir up business for the Bay State

Talia Whyte

Gov. Deval Patrick will depart tomorrow to lead a trade mission to the People’s Republic of China with a team of Massachusetts business executives, academics and senior government officials.

During the seven-day trip, intended to increase business between the Commonwealth and China, the delegation plans to visit business leaders in Beijing and Shanghai to discuss clean air initiatives, life sciences, education and transportation.

“In today’s global economy, competition is worldwide, and so are the opportunities,” Patrick said in a statement announcing the excursion. “No state can afford to sit back and wait for the benefits of foreign trade and development. We have a responsibility to partner with the private sector and promote Massachusetts effectively and aggressively.”

As bargaining chips, Patrick cited the Commonwealth’s expertise in cutting-edge industries, such as alternative energy and life sciences, and in providing high-quality education at every level. But, Patrick explained, “we have to take bold initiative to move Massachusetts forward and compete on the international stage.”

China has the fourth largest — and fastest growing — economy in the world, and is expected to surpass Germany for third place by early 2008, according to an Associated Press report. The U.S. Census Bureau says that between January and September of this year, the U.S. imported over $230 million worth of Chinese products.

However, according to a World Public Opinion poll released in May, 56 percent of Americans oppose the United States entering a free trade agreement with China. The recent controversy surrounding recalls of Chinese-made toys tainted with lead paint has only fueled negative opinions among Americans. Nonetheless, this same poll shows that most Americans believe that China’s economy will surpass the size of the U.S. economy eventually, and they are OK with that.

A group of 30 business leaders from Boston traveled to China last month on a similar trade mission as part of the City to City Program. Started by longtime community activist Hubie Jones, over the past decade the program has taken prominent Bostonians to different cities around the world to meet with business leaders and observe how those cities operate. Previous trips have sent Boston delegates not only to domestic destinations like Seattle and Atlanta, but also to international spots like Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Barcelona, Spain.

On this trip, the delegation visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hang Zhou, considered China’s Silicon Valley.

“We try to go to different places to find out the best practices that could work in Boston and Massachusetts,” said Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts President Darnell Williams, who traveled to China with the group. “We don’t want to duplicate what they are doing, but rather extract examples that can work here in Massachusetts.”

While in China, Williams noticed that the nation’s educational system is vastly different from America’s system. Chinese students spend more hours in school, where a greater emphasis is placed on science, math and engineering. Williams said he thinks this sharp educational focus will lead China to soon surpass the U.S. economy.

“When we visited schools there, it was clear that math and science was emphasized,” Williams said. “It was clear that [they felt] in order to compete in today’s global economy, education is the key.”

Another trip participant, Darryl Settles, former owner of Bob’s Southern Bistro, noticed how receptive the Chinese were to trying out new business opportunities.

“I was speaking to a couple of gentlemen there about restaurant and hospitality opportunities in China, and they liked what I said, “ Settles said. “They turned around and said, ‘When will you start this?’ I was shocked because I was just sharing my ideas with them, not necessarily looking to start a business that day. That shows how serious they are about business.”

Now that China is increasingly opening up to capitalism, it is no surprise to see familiar Western companies there. Delegates remarked at the extent to which hip-hop culture has infiltrated Chinese youth, as observed in nightclubs and style of dress.

“It was wonderful to be there,” said Don West, the official photographer on the trip. “Everywhere you went, there was a Starbucks or McDonald’s.”

All of the trip’s participants came back feeling there are many benefits to be gained from having improved relations with China. City to City trip organizers briefed the governor’s staff last week on their trip and what the governor should expect.

“I am really happy about the governor going there,” Settle said. “It’s going to be an amazing experience for him.”