June 3, 2011

Chinese carry-out: O’Malley comes away with deliverables

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Tiananmen Square by Mayakamina, Creative Commons

Tiananmen Square by Mayakamina, Creative Commons

When U.S. leaders go overseas, the ideal scenario is to come away with “deliverables,” concrete accomplishments for the trip to show it was more than a junket.

That’s what Gov. Martin O’Malley did Thursday in Shanghai when he announced that a Chinese pharmaceutical company, Tasly Group, would invest $40 million in Montgomery County. The company will open a 430,000-square-foot training and production facility to bring traditional Chinese medicine into the U.S. market, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Later in the day, several other companies signed deals with Chinese partners. Baltimore-based RTKL architecture firm already has long-standing ties to China. RTKL has offices in Shanghai and Beijing and has done major signature projects there for years, such as museums in both Shanghai and Beijing. Martek Biosciences out of Columbia is also a major player in international markets with its DHA omega-3 nutritional products.

But whoever heard of the Wall Street Institute of English based in Baltimore? The institute will be teaching English at the Shanghai Police Academy, and Towson University will provide faculty training in Shanghai, where the school established a presence years ago.

O’Malley has taken a little flack for his Asian trip. But from our own story last week, and my own four trips to China over the last 18 years, I would have to say that direct personal contact with high public officials in China, Korea and Vietnam is almost essential for creating business relationships in Asia.

While China and Vietnam having a growing entrepreneurial class, government approval for business ventures and financing is often essential. In fact, business, government and the Communist Party are intimately intertwined.

O’Malley will probably not learn much about the real China in his five days there, especially traveling with a contingent of more than 60 people, but it’s a start. (He might learn more from the Chinese Marylanders with him.)

Republicans might take some swipes at him for the trip, but it’s hard to find a governor of either party in states with major economic development efforts that do not eventually go to China. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia just got back from China last month.

Given Maryland’s long-standing connections to China, you might even ask what took O’Malley so long. Maryland was one of the first states to set up a sister-state relationship with a Chinese province in 1980, and O’Malley will mark that relationship. Baltimore’s sister city, Xiamen, is one China’s four special economic zones, but he won’t get to visit there.

Does the trip help burnish O’Malley’s international credentials as a candidate for national office? It doesn’t hurt. Except for his expertise on Ireland — the Celtic Tiger has lost its stripes — O’Malley’s foreign affairs experience is slim to none. Would the Chinese like to get to know the chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Conference and a frequent visitor to the White House a little better? Of course. Will the state really benefit financially from O’Malley’s brief stay, made up largely of speeches, luncheons and official dinners? Hard to say.

Marketing forays are often difficult to assess, and relations with China have to be seen in the long-term. They do have a lot of dollars to invest.

This weekend, O’Malley will get the see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, palace of the emperors. Across the street from the palace’s Gate of Heavenly Peace – Tiananmen in Chinese – he might get to witness a taste of Chinese security.

Sunday, June 5 is the 22nd anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In past years, Chinese public security forces have made the square off limits, completely shutting down the usual traffic of tourists, most of them Chinese.

Let’s hope O’Malley is not totally insulated from some of the realities of China. It might be provide a slight antidote to the glitter of all marvelous economic growth he will have seen.