Four mayors from America's heartland made the most of their first trip to China, building personal connections and learning about a range of business opportunities.
Mayors Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana; Tito Brown of Youngstown, Ohio; Rich Carr of Maumee, Ohio; and Paul TenHaken of Sioux Falls, South Dakota made the weeklong visit in November. The trip was organized by the United States Heartland China Association (USHCA) and the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation.
USHCA is a non-profit organization with members in 20 states from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Led by Bob Holden, former governor of Missouri, as well as chairman and CEO of USHCA, the mayors visited Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
In a previous interview with China Daily, Holden said that he wanted the mayors from the U.S. heartland region to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to create ways to keep the relationship going and find projects mutually beneficial for the people in both countries.
"We are a nation of great power; China is a rising power. How do we bring both cultures together so we can both continue and both be successful? We are working with cities and states to have them actively involved in this. I believe that the real changes come from bottom up, not top down. After all, all politics are local," Holden said.
In China, the delegation met with government officials at various levels and was briefed by commercial officers at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou and the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
They visited businesses from varied industries such as poultry and automobiles, along with startups and high-tech companies, such as drone maker DJI. They also met with people in the education sector.
There were discussions about a possible sister-city relationship with Shenzhen's sub-districts, a mechanism to keep the relationship going.
Sioux Falls' Mayor TenHaken, in a statement issued after his visit to China, said that "it is time that Sioux Falls looks at developing deeper, more consistent relationships with key Chinese communities and businesses".
One of the largest employers in Sioux Falls is Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods. The mayor believes that the Sioux Falls economy would be strengthened by deeper cultural and business relations with key Chinese partners.
During his visit, TenHaken said he noticed that U.S.-China trade tensions affect both countries.
"Every business I talked with — from drone manufacturers to poultry processors — discussed their desire to see a swift end to these trade tensions. For South Dakota, our agricultural community has felt this impact more than any other population. The sooner it is resolved, the better it will be for the Sioux Falls and South Dakota economies," he said.
The U.S. and China subsequently reached a phase one trade deal agreement on Dec 13 that is expected to be signed in mid-January.
TenHaken left China with a good impression: "The people of China are good people. In each community, I was welcomed with warmth and gratitude from the municipal and business leaders. They are hungry for relationships, partnerships, cultural exchanges, and collaboration that could benefit both countries.
"It was also clear that for the Chinese, relationships come first, and business comes second. Forming these friendships and partnerships with key Chinese allies is the first step toward more economic opportunities," he said.
Youngstown Mayor Brown said he hopes his recent visit to China will help his city's businesses expand in China.
"A lot of the global market looks at the coastal cities and not the Midwest," Brown said in an interview with local media outlet The Vindicator. "We want them to have the Midwest in their hearts and minds when they consider doing business in the United States."
Brown said he found that many Chinese people know about Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati but they didn't know about Youngstown.
"It was quite an experience," he said. "I found it to be a great opportunity for Youngstown to work globally."