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Advocates say St. Louis must understand China to advance business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2012 - The chief difference between China and the United States is that one takes the long view, and the other does not.

And Mike Jones, special adviser to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s China – which has been around 5,000 years – that looks far ahead.

“The Chinese are very pragmatic people,’’ said Jones, until recently the chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission, which now has dropped “China’’ from its name.

The commission has been charged with promoting Lambert-St. Louis International Airport as an international cargo hub, but so far has run into problems persuading the General Assembly to approve the tax credits that Jones says are needed to encourage the construction of warehouses and other needed infrastructure.

But Wednesday, he wasn’t talking about the Hub – but of the cultural disconnect that Jones believes has been a barrier to the business opportunities between the countries.

Jones joined former Gov. Bob Holden and Traci O’Bryan, president of the architectural firm ARCTURIS, on a panel at Webster University for the Holden Public Policy Forum’s Pizza and Politics event.

Their focus was the differences between the Chinese culture and our own and how that affects business and politics.

Holden chairs the Midwest-U.S. China Association, which he calls “a bipartisan effort to try to build relationships in business, agriculture, education, culture’’ and other areas.

O’Bryan’s firm has regular dealings with China and shares some work with Chinese firms.

All three asserted that Americans need to do more -- on the educational, trade and technical front -- to compete.

O’Bryan, for example, observed that China – beset with pollution problems – is addressing the matter on a broad scale by seeking to expand to such “clean technologies’’ as wind or solar energy and to corner the world market on related equipment.

Compared to the United States, she said, “they are applying better and higher levels of sustainable practices.”

The threat for the United States, said Jones, is that “what we’re losing is the innovation edge.”

China also is helped, he added, because most top Chinese leaders have been educated in the United States, have technical degrees and “speak great English,’’ even if they use interpreters.

Americans eager to prosper in the global economy, Jones added, need to “quit looking at the world through the prism of the American experience.”

“We aggressively embrace our view of history,” he said – even when it runs afoul of every other major marketing region in the world.

The Chinese, he added, have a far different view of time. While Americans frame a business project on the basis of months or a few years for it to come to pass, Jones said it’s not unusual for the Chinese to envision decades.

Holden said that Americans also are hurt because “most Americans know less about Chinese culture” than the Chinese know about us.

But both nations now face similar economic challenges, the former governor added. “Both the United States and China have excess manufacturing capacity. Both societies face the disconnect of productivity and consumption.”

Both countries, Holden added, also must confront how to help their middle class prosper: “That’s probably one of the most critical issues.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.