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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tapping into the wealth of a nation

The 60-odd members of a Spokane delegation that returned a week ago from China were still adjusting to Pacific Daylight Time at midweek.

For most, it was an exhaustive trek from Beijing to Suchou to Hangchou to Shanghai that combined stops at many of the usual tourist destinations with factory tours.

And lots of food as well.

But those who did meet with Chinese businessmen are enthusiastic about the potential payoffs, which could include a visit to Spokane by a Chinese delegation as soon as this spring.

International Trade Alliance Chief Executive Officer Mark Peters, for one, is as dazzled by the possibilities as the British traders who anchored at Hong Kong in the 19th century. Thousands of other merchants since have dreamed of tapping China’s 1.3 billion consumers.

“The level of opportunity is massive,” Peters said, and not just for big companies.

Peters, a trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce before coming to Spokane in 2007, said he had doubted small businesses would be able to find their way through the complex channels of Chinese commerce. The meetings changed his mind.

“My level of enthusiasm has increased tremendously,” Peters said.

He said he had three objectives for the trip:

•Identifying export opportunities for Spokane businesses.

•Promoting investment in the Inland Northwest by Chinese companies.

•Promoting the exchange of “green” technologies through the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate.

“I think we’ve planted a few seeds,” Peters said.

The prospect that most excites him is the interest in the area shown by China’s largest maker of solar hot water heaters. The company, First Solaris, markets its products in Asia and Europe, but not in the United States. The Spokane group was the first to meet with them personally, he said.

“They’re very excited to work with us,” Peters said, with a manufacturing plant a possibility. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

He said a smaller delegation led by Mayor Mary Verner will work on solidifying some of the leads on a follow-up visit in May that will also touch down in South Korea.

Robin Toth, director of economic development at Greater Spokane Incorporated, said representatives from two Chinese power companies were impressed by the list of companies – Itron Inc., ReliOn, and SprayCool among them – with clean technologies. The Chinese, she said, know they must address their severe air and water pollution problems.

“It was really nice to be able to show them what we do here,” she said, adding that companies that make elevators and buses also showed some interest in Spokane.

Toth said there is a reservoir of goodwill toward Washington created by the appointment of former Gov. Gary Locke, a Chinese-American, as secretary of commerce, and the Seattle visit by President Hu Jintao in 2006.

But she cautioned that closing deals with the Chinese can be time-consuming, and the delegation has not been back long enough to send thank-you notes and follow up on leads.

The Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development contracts with a Shanghai company, Tractus Asia, to promote state businesses. Tractus arranged some meetings for the Spokane group.

Mark Calhoon, senior managing director for international trade and development, said Tractus will also help develop the leads generated by the visit.

Getting in front of potential Chinese partners as soon as possible is important if businesses want to influence investment decisions, he said, stressing that Washington wants the kind of development appropriate for the state.

“We’re not chasing smokestacks,” Calhoon said.

Toth and Peters returned from China with different perspectives. Toth said she has a greater appreciation for the comforts Americans enjoy.

Peters said he was struck by the cultural and historical wealth of a nation that can trace its civilization back more than 3,000 years.

“We need to really appreciate what China has to offer,” he said.

Those 19th century ship captains did nothing of the sort. For a century, Western business and governments abused the Chinese, leaving a bitter residue of resentment. The U.S., fortunately, was largely an exception.

The Chinese have gradually turned the tables on the West over the past 20 years. Now they hold about $500 billion in U.S. assets, mostly Treasury securities. It would be profitable if this month’s visit, and future visits, restore some equilibrium to the relationship.

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