BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with local leaders and titans of industry in the Seattle area this week means the city’s profile will increase among ordinary people in his country.
Chinese officials and business tycoons know Washington state well. They view the stop before Xi’s first state visit to Washington, DC, as a chance for him to shore up relations with United States companies and burnish his image as his regime copes with an economic slowdown Beijing planners are calling the country’s “new normal.”
“Seattle is one of the best examples of how the China-US relationship can benefit (each country),” said Ruan Zongze, an adviser to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, citing long-held trade ties between the Pacific Northwest metropolis and China.
But many average Chinese are unfamiliar with the area aside from its role in “Sleepless in Seattle,” the 1993 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The film is so popular in China it inspired a 2013 remix titled, “Beijing Meets Seattle.”
“I only heard about Seattle because of the movie, and I always thought Washington state was Washington, D.C.,” said Qi Dongxiang, 43, a journalist from Beijing.
“Most people in China only know a little about the United States, and most of it they know from movies, unless they’ve been able to travel abroad because they’re rich.”
That will change for some people this week because Xi’s journey will receive extensive coverage in the Chinese press and generate buzz on Chinese social media.
The visit deserves scrutiny in China and the US because it constitutes a historic encounter with major implications for the futures of both countries, said Ruan, executive vice president of the state-sponsored China Institute of International Studies.
“The China-US relationship is the (world’s) most important,” Ruan said. “We cannot afford to waste any opportunity to put this relationship on the right track.”
Qi will pay particular attention to the Seattle-area stop because the publication she works for tracks China’s economy. While Xi and President Obama may address tensions over computer hacking, human rights and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the West Coast leg of Xi’s trip will emphasize business issues.
Qi, who traveled to Washington, DC, and New York City last week on an exchange with US journalists, said some Chinese assume high-tech giants Microsoft and Amazon are based in California’s Silicon Valley. They’ll learn otherwise when Xi meets with executives from those companies and others during his Northwest stop.
Business connections between the Seattle area and China aren’t new; Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, called on Microsoft and Boeing facilities during a 2006 visit. But the context is different this time because Chinese officials are charting a new economic course.
Manufacturing powered by cheap labor and polluting factories has driven decades of stupendous growth in China, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and helping the Chinese Community Party maintain control in Beijing.
The economy has slowed in recent years, however. Now officials are promoting the service sector and domestic markets over manufacturing and exports, said Li Haiyan, of the National Development and Reform Commission, which plans China’s economy.
“This new normal cannot be realized overnight,” said Li, director of the commission’s International Cooperation Department. “But we have confidence we can reach it.”
The transition could change the nature of Chinese business with Washington, which is out in front as a strong exporter to China — No. 1 among US states.
The Evergeen State last year sent $20.7?billion in goods to China, from apples, wine and grain to baby products and airplanes, while importing $8.3?billion worth of products from there.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Chinese will be juicing a service sector that, according to Li, still accounts for only 50 percent of the country’s overall economic output, compared to about 80 percent in the US, he said.
To succeed, China will need to further develop its tech industries, which will mean partnerships overseas. Washington state could benefit if Chinese officials like what they see during Xi’s trip, particularly with regard to cleaner energy production.
The commercial arm of the Chinese Academy of Sciences already has launched a joint venture to build a pair of methanol refineries in Tacoma and in Cowlitz County.
Xi will discuss climate change Wednesday with Gov. Jay Inslee and other governors. Chinese officials are eager to hammer out more energy deals with US states, Li said.
Whether Xi’s Seattle-area soft diplomacy succeeds may depend in part on how he handles expected protests by local Tibetan and Taiwanese activists. But some Chinese are optimistic.
“I think our countries can be good friends,” said Wang Meng, 34, sipping coffee earlier this month at a downtown Starbucks in the heartland Chinese city of Xi’an.
Like many Chinese, Meng has plenty to learn about Seattle. Despite his taste for Starbucks, he mentioned “Sleepless” when asked about the city, not espresso.
The author traveled to China this month in an exchange with Chinese journalists organized by the East-West Center, Better Hong Kong Foundation and All-China Journalists Association.
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