Like a gardener who plants seeds, Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder won’t know right away if his 10 days in China will produce a harvest.
However, past trips by San Francisco Bay Area mayors have been productive and Schroder is hoping one day the Silicon Valley Mayors China Trip, organized by China Silicon Valley, will pay off for his city the way it has opened doors for a commerce exchange with others.
Although the trip and the sponsoring nonprofit organization have the name “Silicon Valley,” Schroder explained that in China, the phrase is used to designate the entire nine-county Bay Area – including Martinez. So mayors from Concord, Pleasant Hill, Stockton, Lafayette and other cities outside the South Bay also attended.
The trip, only the third of its type to be organized for California city officials, makes it possible for Bay Area mayors to describe their cities and offer opportunities to potential investors who might partner with local businesses for development or expansion here, as well as to encourage Chinese markets for locally produced goods and services.
For the first time, the Bay Area delegation was invited to attend the Western China Overseas Hi-Tech Talents Conference that took place in Chengdu.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Schroder handed panel members copies of a packet he distributed during the trip, including thumb drives that had additional information, “so they could get into it a bit deeper.”
Their first stop was Beijing, the Chinese capital, where the mayors had a four-hour layover before arriving in Yancheng, on the Yellow Sea.
“Yancheng is a master-plan city of a couple of million people,” Schroder said. At one time, the area was farmland, until officials decided to build. The infrastructure already is in place for future development, he said. Six lane boulevards have been constructed and landscaped, well in advance of any cars.
In fact, few, if any, vehicles have touched the blacktop. “They master plan it and build it quickly,” he said. That’s because China has no environmental quality act procedures, no provisions for public input, no opportunities for petitions. “The powers that be say, ‘Go do it.’”
The trip’s hosts were cordial, and the Bay Area mayors were treated with hospitality, Schroder said. “Each night there was a banquet,” he said.
The mayors were driven to Shanghai, took the popular Huangpu River cruise and dined in one of the city’s revolving restaurants. They were considered honored guests at the Western China Overseas high-Tech Talents Conference, and it was the first time that those making the Silicon Valley Mayors China Trip were invited to the event, which began in 1995.
During the various sessions, the mayors heard two Nobel Prize winners, physicist Samuel Chao Chung Ting and chemist Ada Yonath.
Other speakers were Man- Chung Tang, a widely-recognized master of bridge construction and member of the National Academy of Engineering; neuroscientist Wang Yutian, a professor at the University of British Columbia and member of the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada; and Cheng Yibing, an expert in the field of inorganic non-metallic materials and part of the Australia Academy of Engineering.
Also addressing the audience were Wang Shuoyu, professor of robotics and academician of Japan Academy of Engineering and Japan Academy of Machinery; and Da-Wen Sun, widely-recognized as a food scientist and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.The Bay Area mayors were part of the 2,000 who attended the conference – “People from all over the world,” Schroder said. The Californians were given premium seating in oversized chairs, alongside noted Chinese public officials, and were served tea as they listened to the presentations. They also met in private sessions with government officials. “We all talked about our cities,” Schroder said.
At that point, some mayors returned to San Francisco, but Schroder was among those who stayed for the extended legs of the tour, stopping next in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton.
“I had been in Canton 27 years before,” Schroder said. He had traveled there on a business trip with his father. During the earlier trip, he said, Canton looked tired and run down. “Now there’s steel and glass high rise apartment buildings. The infrastructure is immaculate.”
He and the other mayors toured technology parks. Schroder said one reminded him of Bishop Ranch in San Ramon, only this had high rises. That park is owned by a Chinese family whose son is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Schroder’s alma mater. But the Chinese student first attended Diablo Valley College, because he knew he had a better chance of getting into Cal Berkeley that way, Schroder said.
The mayor discovered that many technology parks are “incubators,” catering to new businesses getting off the ground, with the hopes they will grow and expand into other areas.
The trip included a tour of a KIA automobile manufacturing plant; a view of the world’s largest computer that at one time was used strictly by the central government and now, for a price, can be used by others; and a silicon manufacturing plant.
The country, especially during this trip, is emphasizing both high-tech business and what the Chinese call “foreign talent” – those from China whose advanced education outside the country has been sponsored, with the expectation that once the student completes his or her studies, he or she will return and use that knowledge in China.
“You get paid to go to the United States,” he said. Likewise, he added, “there are incentives to come back.”
One place Schroder didn’t get to see was Hanchuan, sister city to Martinez. It just wasn’t close enough to the packed itinerary.
Compared to his previous visit, Schroder said: “I’ve seen a lot of changes. It’s still a communist country, but with a large splash of capitalism.” He described it more like a socialist country with a strong, central government.
The China he remembered from years ago was “drab” with a lot of military presence. “The Cultural Revolution was the turning point,” he said. That 10-year event started in 1966 and developed into conflicts between Mao Zedong and other members of the Chinese Communist Party. He called it a stifling period in China’s history.
“Now I see no military,” he said, just police officers as one might in many other cities.
And the country is colorful again, he noted.
There’s still not a lot of public comment on governmental issues, he said. That streamlines projects, but it doesn’t give the average Chinese person a chance to weigh in on matters that will affect him or her, he said.
And the comments and questions that are made must be worded carefully, he said. “I felt free to speak,” he said. “One thing they told us is, ‘You can ask anything you want – it’s how you ask.’”
For instance, he learned he couldn’t ask about specific examples in controversial matters, but he could ask the country’s general stance on those same issues.
As for what the trip means for Martinez itself, Schroder said: “I didn’t come home with buckets of money.” Instead, he has accumulated good contacts and information about business owners and high-tech industries. He knows that Morgan Hill has received inquiries from China about investing in its warehouse space. And he is hoping that some Chinese investors will decide to collaborate with local developers on Martinez-based projects, or that Martinez business owners will see more Chinese markets opening up for them.
He mentioned the silicon manufacturing plant and the country’s software development industries. “One thing I’m hoping is some business folks want to invest their money, not in the Shanghai market, but in infrastructure projects, such as multifamily housing and parking garages, or developing marina hotels and restaurants,” he said. “They’d be partnering with developers.” Like a patient gardener, he said, “We’ll see if any fruit comes of this.”