China’s ambassador to the U.S. visited Charlotte on Wednesday to celebrate the Chinese New Year and promote trade ties between the Carolinas and China.
Cui Tiankai’s visit, his first to the city, comes as North Carolina leaders have looked east to China as a source of business and investment. Last year, the state sent two trade delegations to China to boost interest, including one sponsored by the Carolinas Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
The country’s hundreds of millions of emerging middle-class consumers and huge sources of capital are enticing. But questions remain. As China’s economy matures, its growth has slowed, rattling world markets and helping to send stocks into a tailspin this month.
On Wednesday, the ambassador visited Mandarin classes at Waddell Language Academy on Nations Ford Road, where he watched students sketch Chinese calligraphy characters and was serenaded by kindergartners singing in Chinese. Cui met with N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and local leaders and gave a speech Wednesday night at a gala in the Sheraton uptown. On Thursday, Tiankai is set to visit a Chinese-owned fiber manufacturing firm in Richburg, S.C.
He praised North Carolina for its universities, businesses and access to nature, and called Charlotte “an ideal city for business in the U.S. Cui called for closer cooperation between the U.S. and China on a “sub-national” level, such as city-to-city.
“North Carolina, which has a dynamic Chinese community, is an important trading partner of China,” said Cui. “We look forward to more robust growth in trade, investment, tourism, education as well as people-to-people exchanges between China and North Carolina.”
Chinese media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency and CCTV, accompanied the ambassador, which local leaders hope will boost awareness of Charlotte – along with its banking, energy and manufacturing sectors – in China.
McCrory compared Charlotte and North Carolina to the Carolina Panthers, underestimated by the rest of the league but ready for breakout success.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who represents Charlotte, praised China and called for more cooperation between the two countries. But he also called for China to respect human rights within its borders and work with the U.S. to end cyber attacks it has been accused of against U.S. businesses.
“We must find a solution to end the current cyber security standoff,” said Pittenger.
For years, Chinese imports produced at lower wages competed with some of North Carolina’s primary industries, especially furniture and textiles. That cost jobs and led to wholesale closures of plants as American manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the lower prices.
But the economy has changed: China is no longer the low-wage “factory of the world” it once was, and as its economy grows more sophisticated and richer, Chinese investors are looking to the U.S. for opportunity. In 2013, Shangui International Holdings bought Smithfield, a meat producer with major hog operations in North Carolina.
Chinese textile company Keer opened a new, $218 million mill last year in Lancaster County, about 6 miles south of Ballantyne. In a reversal of the U.S. textile jobs-to-China trend, the mill will employ about 500 American workers.
In uptown, China Orient Summit Capital is financing a $122 million office tower under construction at 615 S. College St.
China is North Carolina’s third-largest export market, according to the U.S.-China Business Council, behind Canada and Mexico. In 2014, North Carolina’s exports to China totaled $2.7 billion, led by computers and electronics, chemicals and crop production goods.
“Charlotte is a fast-growing city, and it’s important to connect Charlotte with China,” said Richard Yang, a local businessman and president of the Carolinas Chinese Chamber who helped organize the trip.