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Published: Sunday, 9/19/2010

After many miles, meals, Toledo has friend in Yulin

BY BILL MARCUS
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Toledo Mayor Mike Bell receives a warm welcome in Yulin, China, during the trip. Toledo Mayor Mike Bell receives a warm welcome in Yulin, China, during the trip.
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YULIN, China - The plush red mat in every elevator at the five-star Ordos Holiday Inn read "Xingqi Liu - Saturday" (literally translated: sixth day of the week), but make no mistake, just as on the seventh day of the Toledo delegation's 11-day business trip to China, there would be no rest on this eighth day, either.

Even China wasn't taking the day off. To offset the leave that the entire nation planned to take on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest event similar to America's Thanksgiving, workers clocked in over the weekend, and will next Saturday as well. Primary, middle-school, and secondary school students will follow a similar schedule.

Rain cut through the summer heat and humidity that had hung over China since mid-June.

By daybreak the first 60-degree morning of the season had arrived.

Zhao Jian Hong, director of the Bureau of Commerce in Yulin, China, and Toledo Mayor Mike Bell sign a draft memorandum outlining goals of cooperation between the two cities. The document calls for cooperation in educational, cultural, and technological exchanges. Zhao Jian Hong, director of the Bureau of Commerce in Yulin, China, and Toledo Mayor Mike Bell sign a draft memorandum outlining goals of cooperation between the two cities. The document calls for cooperation in educational, cultural, and technological exchanges.
PICASA 3.0 Enlarge

From Ordos, Inner Mongolia, to Beijing (a distance comparable to that between Toledo and Buffalo) autumn was taking hold.

At 6 a.m., just as Toledo Mayor Mike Bell was getting out of bed, the area around the newly built five-star Holiday Inn, like the new downtown of Ordos that the delegation had visited the afternoon before, was nearly deserted.

Meanwhile, the old congested city of Dongshang, where most of the city's 1.3 million people work and live, and where the delegation had been invited to a formal dinner the night before, percolated with life.

At the Hotel Dongyu Shenghai, a seven-minute walk from the Holiday Inn, 18-year-old Cui Xiao Ga rose from the lobby couch where he had been sleeping, donned his bellhop uniform, and prepared to start his day, despite the fact that he was still wearing his slippers.

Zhao Jie Lin, 20, was ending her shift as the night clerk, her bedding laid out on the floor behind the hotel desk.

"When I'm off the clock, I have my own dorm room and I have my own bed," she said about making $265 a month, which she pointed out, was $15 more than Mr. Cui, because she's a cashier.

Both were lured from their homes, a day's drive to the West of Ordos and Dongshang, by economic promise.

As do most migrants, they send half their salaries home to their respective parents. What's left gets halved again.

Once half of that is banked, the rest is used for daily expenses. In Miss Zhao's case, parents and a sister live off the money she sends home.

"I like my job," she said. "Although it's a little exhausting to stay up for the night, it's still OK."

And interesting. Boomtown Ordos has a lot more going on than boring Shanxi, where both workers are from.

"Because Shanxi hasn't developed as fast as here. This is a recently developed city. It's a better city than ours. Companies here pay us higher. Living expenses are higher too," said Mr. Cui, adding that in Shanxi they could only hope to make $150 a month, though expenses would be lower.

Back at the Holiday Inn, 21-year-old Wang Run Ze benefits more directly from the local investment of a foreign multinational chain.

"Holiday Inn is my teacher," said the college student who hopes to be a tour guide after he graduates next year.

As one of 40 summer trainees making a monthly salary of $150 and living at home, his skills, like his English, are improving, thanks to a skill-development project at the hotel, he said.

Asked about hotel workers, Mr. Bell replied, "In some ways, it's no different than things I see back in the United States big cities - people trying to do the best they can with what they've got going."

For the local Chinese government leaders who have been meeting with Mr. Bell and his delegation from Toledo for the last week, these are the people they have in mind when they accept Toledo's invitation to enter into a business relationship.

The calculus of that relationship works something like this: The business leaders who have traveled with the mayor seek to invest and expand in China. Local officials in China benefit.

Seeing that Toledo supports the initiative toward China, Mr. Bell anticipates that the Chinese will initiate business investment in Toledo or seek to utilize its resources and institutions, such as the university.

"We really do need to be looking out a little bit farther than our own city," Mr. Bell said.

But, he cautions, the connection to people on the ground, such as Mr. Cui, Ms. Zhao, and Mr. Wang, or their counterparts in Toledo who are in need of a job, will take time. Though not as much as elsewhere, because development in China is moving at the speed of light. Mr. Bell said it will require Toledo to do what the Chinese do and exercise "forward thinking."

"What [the United States] did, is, we wait, we develop. If somebody shows up, well, maybe we'll build. They go past that. They're thinking 5 and 10 years ahead. What's this thing going to look like and how do we get ahead of it? And, they have the means to be able to do it, and I am just extremely impressed by that."

Could currency, trade, and tariff disputes between Washington and Beijing derail all that he has done during this trip? No way, replied the mayor.

"The politics are changing day to day. I'm not going to worry about that. What I'm worried about is the energy I could create here, now," he said.

Despite the fact that there will be fallout over recent demands by China that American automotive companies or firms wishing to sell hybrid-electric power turn over their technology as a condition of market entry, his emerging relationships made on the local level will overcome any obstacles, he said.

"We're just starting to get a handle on the point where we make positive contacts with people." It's in Toledo's interest to, at the very least, test the waters, he added.

After breakfast, the delegation traveled south 100 miles along yet another new highway lined by dirt red from iron. Off in the distance from one side of the trip south from Ordos to Yulin was the Yellow River. On the other side, a lone nuclear reactor.

When the Toledo group arrived this time at a five-star hotel, they were greeted by a red banner that in Chinese and English read "Welcome the delegation of American Toledo Government."

First order of business after a half hour to change clothes was a full-course lunch banquet, followed by a trip to the Yulin Exhibition Hall, followed by a 90-minute exchange of objectives, gifts, and invitations, followed by a dinner banquet.

The abundance of food is an extension of Chinese hospitality, which always involves eating (and, at dinner, excessive toasting) and dicsussion of the emerging development zone.

This zone, in Yulin, had been designated two days earlier, along with Ordos, as points on a geographic triangle the government declared would be a site for future development of the chemical industry, the "Golden Chemical Triangle," according to state media.

"The geographic triangle area has a total energy reserve of 2 trillion metric tons of standard coal, accounting for 40 percent of national figure," reported Xinhua News Agency.

Yulin translator Lu Qiang said so many different foreign delegations had visited his city that he couldn't remember the name of them. They come each week to court the leaders of Yulin.

"This is an issue that's global. Other people have actually figured it out," Mr. Bell said.

At the main table, bonding took place over good-natured ribbing.

"Looking at how you handle the chopsticks I can see there's a lot you can learn about China. Look at how I handle chopsticks," Zhao Jian Hong, director of the Bureau of Commerce of Yulin kidded Mayor Bell.

"I'm thinking from my standpoint, being able to talk to each of the deputy mayors and business people, face to face, and get in a relationship with them is extremely important," the mayor said as he boarded a van for the Yulin Exhibition Hall. He said his impression of Mr. Zhao was that he was "extremely credible."

The delegation never saw a coal mine, an energy plant, or even Yulin's most famous tourist site, the Zhen Bei Tai watchtower, which dates to the Ming Dynasty. The closest they came to the original city wall, restored with 600-year-old bricks, was to view it from a bus window. There simply wasn't time.

The mayor was whisked from lunch to a mini-museum of photos of politicians old and new from Communist party leaders to Kangxi, a Qing Dynasty emperor who passed through town 300 years ago on his way to put down an uprising.

Through clogged streets, the bus averted disaster more than once navigating around kamikaze drivers animatedly engaged with their cell phone calls and not paying attention to the road.

By 3:30, it was time for another round of presentations in another darkly furnished room. Yulin's municipal panel of officials and academics wore jeans, open-collar shirts, and no ties.

"We have a university in Toledo that we believe is in the forefront of being able to work with renewable energy," the mayor told the officials from Yulin. "You have a resource that … need[s] to be transported - Toledo is the place to bring it. Not only do we [have] great shipping … we have the railroads that go north and south and east and west that intersect with Toledo."

Alex Johnson, president and CEO of Midwest Terminals of Toledo and CEO of Red Lion Bio-Energy, pitched the port and his coal-to-gas services. Real estate developer Scott Prephan pitched investment in Harbor Bay Estates, an 80-acre luxury residential development his firm is constructing on the shore of Lake Erie.

"We would like to build a connection with our university - we have 4,000 people - and our students would like to go abroad for further study for master's degrees," announced a member of the Yulin side.

Mr. Bell then presented Mr. Zhao with a glass key to the city and Mr. Zhao presented Mr. Bell - and each member of the delegation - with a dragon carved in stone.

"There can only be one dragon," Mr. Zhao told Mr. Bell, "We would like to extend the auspiciousness of the symbol of the dragon to you, as the mayor of the city, and to Toledo."

Again an invitation was extended to come visit, but this time, as the Chinese leader, Mr. Zhao accepted, he also called for a draft memorandum to be signed by both him and Mr. Bell to outline their mutual objectives.

"I would like to propose that we draft a memorandum of understanding where we would cooperate with each other, so at the time that the mayor visits our city, we can sign it to accept the ways in which we will agree to work together," Mr. Zhao said.

Replied Mr. Bell, "In order to put traction on this trip I think it is important that we put it into writing."

"That's great," Mr. Zhao said.

A few hours later, after yet another lavish banquet, the two men toasted one another and their agreed-upon four-point document that included commitments to "establish a long-term friendly partnership between the two cities as a platform to facilitate global business initiatives."

Those initiatives will include "cooperation in areas of education, cultural, and technological exchanges."

An identical Chinese translation was officially referred to as a "draft" so that Mr. Zhao and his delegation did not upstage Chinese municipal officials. The plan would be to sign it and make it official when Mr. Zhao came to Toledo. Mayor Bell, however, considered his commitments to be binding.

"Both parties have expressed their interests to explore collaboration concerning environmental protection and alternative energy issues," the memorandum said. Toledo and Yulin also pledged to "establish a reciprocal annual business exchange program to enhance and ensure the continuation of business relationships."

"This is an historic day for both cities in two different countries. We started off looking to be able to both improve our cities. [That led to] great discussions today and orientations that both cities have to offer. Not only have we decided to currently develop this partnership but we have also now a long-term friendship. And I'm just so proud to sit here and sign this memorandum of understanding," Mr. Bell said.

"Through this meeting today we have further seen the friendship and [the niceness], of the American people," Mr. Zhao replied.

The draft memorandum, however, did not explicitly mention the Port of Toledo, a large part of the presentation.

"That's implicit in 'facilitate global business initiatives,'" the mayor said later when asked about that point as he was en route to his next stop, Beijing.

"They love signing ceremonies," said Ginny Fang, executive director of CHINA SF, a joint project of the San Francisco Center for Economic Development and the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom. She said she had hosted many delegations that secured memoranda of understanding.

Delegation members were brimming with smiles over what they said was both a warm embrace and the initiative shown by Yulin officials. But when asked whether the document could be quantified in prospective terms of jobs or additional tax revenue for the city, Deputy Mayor Dean Monske replied, "Time will tell."

Bill Marcus is a freelance reporter based in Shanghai.



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