STERLING – Hong Lei, China’s consul general in Chicago, came to the Sauk Valley on Tuesday to talk about trade and investment opportunities, but shifting the conversation to friendships put a big smile on his face.
The consul general had accepted an invitation to explore those opportunities from Whiteside County Economic Development Director Gary Camarano.
He and a few members of his Chicago delegation met with business and government leaders at a forum hosted by Sauk Valley Community College, and then toured Astec Mobile Screens in Sterling.
The visit wasn’t Hong’s first trip through this part of the Midwest. He fondly remembers the legendary trips to Muscatine, Iowa, made by China’s President Xi Jinping.
A young Xi made his first trip to Muscatine in 1985, as the leader of a Chinese group exploring Midwest agriculture technology. The small eastern Iowa town would never be the same, and neither would China’s future leader.
“I’ve passed through this area before because of our Muscatine ties,” Hong said. “President Xi Jinping met Gov. Terry Branstad during his first visit, and they became very good friends.”
Important agribusiness deals were signed with Washington during Xi’s initial 2-week trip to Iowa, and cultural and business relations have kept growing over the years.
Xi treasured the friendships he developed with Branstad and other Iowans over the years, and in 2012, while vice president, he made a return visit to Muscatine.
Branstad’s business accomplishments with the Chinese are legendary, and he now serves as President Trump’s ambassador to China.
While Hong’s presentation was chock-full of business statistics illustrating the unique opportunity that exists between small- and medium-sized business in the U.S. and China, the Muscatine experience has helped shape his career.
“People in the Midwest are hospitable and kind, and President Xi has always felt strong ties to Muscatine,” Hong said. “Friendship between individuals can be very important in a business relationship.”
Hong outlined how to do business with China, and Camarano reminded the Chinese group of what the Whiteside County region has to offer – location, a strong workforce, infrastructure, and a lower cost of doing business when compared to urban areas.
Hong said China is poised for long-term growth, and its rapidly growing middle class is creating an insatiable appetite for U.S. exports. Projections are for China’s middle class to grow from 300 million to 500 million in the next 10 to 15 years.
The service industry soon will make up more than 50 percent of China’s economy, and e-commerce is a driver. Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce powerhouse, continues to destroy single-day sales records.
“Alibaba recently had $18 billion in sales in a day, so promoting products on that platform is very important,” Hong said.
Chinese companies also are more open to foreign investment, particularly in manufacturing, mining and services.
“Do you have examples of direct investments made in the U.S.?” asked John Gvozdjak, president and chief operating officer at Frantz Manufacturing.
Hong cited Wanxiang America Corp., an auto parts manufacturer that has invested heavily in Elgin, and, as it has grown, has diversified into other areas. China has 200 investment projects in Michigan alone. Finance is another investment priority of the Chinese.
Some business leaders wanted more practical information, such as who to contact within the Chinese business realm.
“How does an economic development organization get connected to promote their region?” asked Jason Anderson, economic development director for Rochelle.
Hong said there are several online matchmaking options available, and the China Chamber of Commerce in Chicago is the go-to organization to contact.
Daniel Payette, executive director at Blackhawk Hills Regional Council, wanted to know in which types of tourism the Chinese are most interested.
Hong said many people in China are still curious about Muscatine, decades after their president’s first visit to Iowa. The home where Xi stayed is now a tourist destination, and the business and cultural ties continue to flourish through the city’s Chinese Chamber of Iowa.
“More travelers are changing their focus from the East and West Coasts to the Midwest,” Hong said. “They like to do general sightseeing, and they’ve heard good things about this part of the country.”
Hong has filed away important lessons about what can happen when business opportunities are solidified by personal relationships, and the Whiteside County region is hoping that history will repeat itself.