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America’s fears costing it Chinese investment, businessmen say

Up until recently, the strongest impression in my mind about the interplay between Chinese and American business interests came from a Fortune magazine cover story.

“The CEO Who Caught the Chinese Spies Red-Handed,” read the headline of the story, which explored how software executive Kevin Mandia helped expose a Chinese military unit’s hacking campaign against U.S. companies.

My frame of reference perhaps isn’t uncommon. When Americans think “China” and “business” these days, they often conjure up images of a surging economic competitor across the sea, a Communist rival that seems intent on beating us at capitalism.

We worry about lax safety standards there allowing tainted food or toys to reach our store shelves. We worry about the wisdom of having one of our biggest economic rivals as a significant holder of our country’s national debt.

Clearly, you don’t have to look far to find land mines that could jeopardize good relations between the two nations.

But if you sit down to lunch with members of the Carolinas Chinese Chamber of Commerce, as Observer Business Editor John Arwood and I did recently, your frame of reference might shift a little.

The group of volunteers serves as a networking center and a voice for the more than 500 Chinese companies operating in the Carolinas, said Richard Yang, a leader of the group and vice president of AC Furniture, one of America’s largest furniture manufacturers serving the hospitality industry.

(If you’ve eaten in an O’Charley’s, Olive Garden or Golden Corral restaurant lately, you probably parked your bottom on his company’s handiwork, Yang noted with a chuckle).

Many of the group’s members went to college in China, but they now work for companies here in America. When the chamber celebrated its first anniversary in May, Yang said, more than 180 successful Chinese-American businessmen from across the Carolinas showed up at the Ballantyne Hotel.

Members of the group believe the United States is getting only a fraction of the Chinese business investment available for the taking. Yang said old Cold War fears are keeping America’s leaders from capitalizing fully on the money to be made as China’s growing economy looks for places to invest.

“If their money’s green, if it’s legal, and they’re not chasing American (business) secrets, we should be more open,” he said. “Americans should be much more confident.”

Joining us at lunch that day were business consultant Peter Dong, IT entrepreneur Jack Su, Wells Fargo director Ernest Lang and Daniel McVety, the chamber’s executive director.

They made it clear that, while their roots are Chinese, their hopes and dreams are as American as any other Charlotte businessman’s. They want their companies and careers to thrive, and given their first-hand knowledge of China, they sense U.S. businesses are missing huge opportunities.

They have noticed the relatively small presence of Chinese firms in Charlotte, for instance, especially when compared to the number hailing from Germany and other European countries.

Eileen Cai, a Shanghai native who serves as the Charlotte Chamber’s economic development point person for Asia, has said at least 11 Chinese firms have established offices in Charlotte in the past two years.

There are about 200 German firms with operations in the region.

As Yang sees it, China’s a better economic bet than recession-hampered Europe. Socialism’s dead, he said, and European countries that still subscribe to it are bound to continue struggling.

But what about Communism, we asked. Hasn’t the Soviet Union’s collapse pointed out the flaws in that economic model?

China isn’t doing true-believer Communism, he and his colleagues responded. China’s government has allowed individual entrepreneurs to flourish within the larger framework of its command economy. (I later thought of them when I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on Zhang Xin, who went from sweatshop worker to billionaire real estate mogul).

The way they described it, China’s government is more focused on growth than ideological purity. It’s all about business. If one city needs more roads, the government simply builds them.

If another needs more multifamily housing, up it goes, by order of the government – no messy retail politics necessary.

“They run the country like a business,” Yang said.

What about freedom of speech, we asked. Google, for instance, has been battling censorship in China for years, and has said cyberattacks have been launched seeking access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

But the businessmen said there’s more freedom of speech than one might think in China. Yang and business consultant Dong said people there are free to speak their minds on the Internet.

They acknowledged, however, that free expression in China has its limits: For instance, they said, the government pays contractors small fees to delete some posts it might not like.

After so many news stories about China as a competitive threat, it was interesting to hear the perspectives of Chinese-American business leaders. As they repeatedly made clear, they want to see the United States do better in its trade relations with China.

They’d love to see more airline routes open from Charlotte to Asia, and they’re just as chagrined as everyone else about the ongoing fight for control over the airport between the city and state lawmakers.

They say they will continue to do their part in recruiting Chinese investment by putting out the good word on the Carolinas with their business contacts in Asia.

“We’re volunteers with a passion,” said Yang. “We want their companies here. We want to sell there.”