Chinese Cash is Coming: Is the U.S. Ready?

By Barbara Koh

SAN FRANCISCO, May 11, 2012 — At Asia Society Northern California’s annual gala here at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel San Francisco, the tables were turned on the topic of U.S.-China business. Instead of U.S. operations in China, the issue was whether China's mushrooming foreign investment would come to the U.S.

"We want to attract investment from China, Japan, India, Korea, and all the other countries in Asia," California Governor Jerry Brown, the ASNC gala's policy leadership honoree, said. In his keynote speech to the audience of 400, which included many diplomats and businesspeople from Asia, Brown added, "We want people to feel comfortable to come here."

"We have more damn regulations and more damn taxes than you ever can imagine," the governor told the gathering at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco. "But if you got a problem, come see me," he said in his characteristic jocular style. "I'll fix it."

To help entice investment from China, the state will re-establish a trade office there, Brown said. Slated to open in Shanghai by the end of the year, the California-China Trade and Investment Office will be administered by GO-Biz, the governor's economic and business development program, and will rely on the resources of the Bay Area Council and other California business groups operating in China. It will be the first such office since 2003, when the state’s network of trade offices, in Shanghai and other overseas cities, was shut because of budget cuts and poor management.

The China office aside, however, California has to have "a stronger business climate" and "something to invest in," Brown said, noting that the state budget is a mess. Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983, inherited a $26 billion budget deficit when he began his third gubernatorial term last year.

To fix the state and attract foreign investment will require Californians to sacrifice and "surmount our parochial thoughts," the governor said. "We're a place of creativity and innovation, and we also have to be a place of saving and investment and discipline," he said. If Californians are willing to "suck it in, pay more taxes, work harder, [and] get more creative, then we can be a viable partner to all those who are doing the same thing in Asia."

Asian investment coming to California could help alleviate the state's budget crisis and energize its economy, Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, told the gala audience. While foreign direct investment (FDI) has for decades flowed from the U.S. and Western nations to the "developing world," now money has begun flowing the other way.

In 2010, for instance, China's FDI in the U.S. amounted to $5 billion — just a sliver of the $228 billion total that poured into the U.S. But that was 130 percent more than China's investment the year before, Schell said. An estimated $1-2 trillion of new capital will be streaming from China in 2020, he said, and both the U.S. and California should figure out whether and how to get their shares of it.
How California can lure Chinese investment is the subject of an Asia Society and Rhodium Group report to be released in July 2012. It builds upon a May 2011 Asia Society study that examined China's investment in the U.S. as a whole.

San Francisco is ready

While California prepares to reopen a trade development office in China, San Francisco has one each in Shanghai and Beijing and plans to open a third in Guangzhou. Mayor Ed Lee made brief remarks to the ASNC dinner crowd about ChinaSF, the city's four-year-old program to cultivate business with China, and about internationalism. Since being elected last year as San Francisco's first Asian American mayor, Lee has focused on creating jobs, particularly by wooing start-ups and tech companies to the city. But, he said, he also urges them to go global, telling them, "You didn't start your company here just to sell to people in Potrero Hill, Nob Hill, and Pacific Heights. You came to establish a presence and to utilize the position of San Francisco as a gateway to the rest of the world."

San Francisco's competitors, Lee added, "are going to be Amsterdam, Europe and other parts of the world," not neighbors like San Jose and Oakland. "Our future is all about our international world and our relationships," he said.

ASNC business honoree

The ASNC gala business honoree was Masashi Oka, president and CEO of Union Bank. Oka, who has moved between Japan and the U.S. several times during his banking career, noted that Union Bank has a 150-year history and a workforce of 10,000 people in California. Sydnie Kohara, a former CNBC and CBS 5 anchor, emceed the gala.

Watch a video of Jerry Brown’s remarks above. Click here for a video interview with Masashi Oka, produced by Sydnie Kohara.