April 18, 2006 -- Chinese President Hu Jintao's first official visit to the United States started in Seattle. It's not a mere pit stop on the way to Washington D.C. -- it's business. China's relationship with the U.S. capital may be complicated, but the Chinese president has friends in the other Washington.
Hu said he didn't choose to visit Seattle simply because it's the closest major U.S. city to China. "It is also because your state enjoys very good cooperative relations with my country," he said through a translator.
Washington state depends on trade, and China is a big customer. Twenty-billion dollars worth of goods traveled through Washington ports heading to and from China last year. Boeing believes China will buy more than $183 billion worth of commercial airlines over the next 20 years. Microsoft looks to China as the fastest-growing market for personal computers.
President Hu will tour Boeing and Microsoft, both of which have invested heavily in China. But when Microsoft founder Bill Gates meets with the Chinese leader, there will be more than talk about money.
When the leader of the world's most powerful communist country meets with one of this country's leading capitalists, the talk will be about the future. Hu has told President Bush and others that his biggest challenge is to guide China through a cultural change. As billions of dollars are pumped into the economy, some get wealthy and others get left behind. The Chinese want "heping fashan," or peaceful development.
Partners, not Rivals
While many in the United States see cheap Chinese labor as a threat to American jobs, many in China see the West as a land of marauding capitalists. When poor peasants from the country see the newly minted Chinese middle class buying $4 Starbucks lattes, leaders worry that differences between the haves and the have nots could lead to trouble for both the Chinese government and U.S. businesses.
According to author Greg Huang, Microsoft stumbled in its early dealings with the Chinese but has more recently invested in the future of the country. Gates and Microsoft have created a development laboratory in Beijing that has become a mecca for China's best and brightest.
It has simultaneously become both a source of pride for the Chinese and a weapon in Microsoft's battle against its competitors. The Chinese have begun to see Microsoft as a contributor to "heping fashan," and Microsoft has found a way to harness the intellectual power of brilliant Chinese software engineers.
The strategy has already had an impact. Some experts estimate that more than 70 percent of all computers in China run illegal and pirated versions of Microsoft software. In the past week, the Chinese announced that three of the country's largest PC manufacturers would buy more than 1.6 billion legitimate copies of the Windows operating system.
"There's still an impression that software should be free, so that's important stuff," said Huang.
Hu will dine with Gates, the governor of Washington and others Tuesday evening at the Microsoft chairman's palatial home. The Chinese president leaves for the other Washington on Wednesday.
It seems Gates and Jintao want to overlook their differences and problems and work toward a partnership based on mutual gain. Is there a lesson to be learned from that thinking?
Greg Huang believes so. "Business leaders are more forward thinking about finding ways so both sides are able to win," he said.