By Peter Shiao
THE campaign for president has begun to tilt toward California at a time when the national conversation on China has been dominated by scapegoating and fear. Politicians looking to score points tell us that China is “ripping us off,” “gaming the system” and “stealing jobs” from Americans.
But while political maneuvering clouds the U.S.-China narrative, an entirely different story is emerging in Los Angeles. The proximity of the L.A. region to China has given us a unique opportunity to prosper and lead in fostering the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. As a magnet for Chinese investors, tourists, artists, and students, Los Angeles is showing the state and the nation what a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with China looks like.
A quick view of this vibrant relationship is quite compelling. According to a new report by the Rhodium Group and National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, California is the top destination for Chinese direct investment, with more than $8 billion flowing to 452 California businesses through 2015. That number jumped again this year when Chinese firm Wanda purchased Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion. Chinese-owned businesses already directly employ almost 10,000 Californians, and indirect jobs through tourism and construction multiply that figure several times.
Chinese tourists are the No. 1 international market for L.A. tourism, with total visitors quadrupling to 680,000 between 2009 and 2014, and each visitor spending an average of $6,000 in California. China also stands as L.A.’s biggest international trading partner, accounting for 50 percent of all two-way trade in the Los Angeles Customs District.
Southern California is naturally positioned to take the lead on attracting Chinese investment and talent: Our beautiful weather, unique destinations, global institutions, transportation infrastructure, and homegrown industries – from Hollywood to aerospace to Silicon Beach – are all doing their part to attract opportunities and visitors to our shores. We are home to a vibrant Chinese-American community that acts as a critical cultural liaison for Chinese investment, tourism, and a whole host of other activities.
Laying out these strengths is not to congratulate ourselves for a job well done, however. Although many in our midst are already fostering China ties that positively contribute to our region, we still lack a coordinated approach that would maximize benefits for the people of this state. Southern California should approach the China relationship in the same way we do when building a new stadium or welcoming the Olympics: by pooling our talents, imagination, and resources to make this a major win for our communities.
The arrival of China on the global stage – and in our communities – can’t be evaluated on purely economic terms. The American educational system does little to prepare us for understanding and engaging with China, and what information is available is incomplete, outdated, and conveyed through a narrowly political lens. Compared to the average Chinese student, who has studied English from grade school and grown up on a diet of American culture, Americans are far behind in our knowledge of China. These deficiencies have serious implications for the future competitiveness of America and need to be addressed as part of bolstering the competitiveness of America moving forward.
Several years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and Chinese President Xi Jinping contemplated a deeper relationship for trade and exchange between California and China. This Memorandum of Understanding was ultimately finalized between California and China’s Ministry of Commerce along with seven of its most economically and culturally important regions. The pedigree of this engagement is such that it has the potential to be fully embraced by Chinese and Americans alike and establishes a framework that can be expanded and executed. It might be just what is needed to bring all the relevant players together to map out the next steps forward.
This month, a delegation of 130 Chinese leaders from the MOU regions will arrive in Los Angeles for ChinaWeek’s inaugural California-China Business Summit, a landmark event keynoted by Brown to mobilize the MOU and stimulate investment. The summit will mark a new phase for the China-California relationship and a showcase for what the transpacific relationship can become.
As ground zero for U.S.-China relations, we have the opportunity in the L.A. region to play host to stakeholders from around our state and country, China, and the world on this important topic. Let’s not take it for granted. Instead, let’s approach this unique opportunity with the focus, commitment, and coordination that it deserves.
Peter Shiao is founder and chief executive of Orb Media Group, a U.S.-China entertainment company, and founder of ChinaWeek, an annual weeklong China-focused series of events in the L.A. region. ChinaWeek 2016 will take place between May 7 and 14, with the marquee California-China Business Summit on May 11.