It's appropriate that what appears to be my last interview in China is with one of the first people I met here -- Karl Zhao, director of the new Kansas trade office in Beijing. Karl's point man for Kansas business efforts to expand relationships with Chinese companies, and he brings wide experience to the job: In the '90s he ran a similar office in Chicago for his home province of Jilin, and two years ago he was setting up New Jersey's Beijing office.
So he understands relations between businesses and governments and the U.S. and China, which can get complicated. For a Kansas business seeking to expand its China presence, Zhao said the advantage of a state office is the legitimacy it confers on the business transaction. Unlike the U.S., where businesses contact one another all the time without interference from the state, China's central government is much more involved in all levels of a transaction. So if an American company tries to go it alone, the government doesn't see it as having much clout. Stick a State of Kansas seal on it, and suddenly the government takes that business more seriously. Zhao's office is "eyes, ears and legs" for Kansas businesses in China -- especially small and medium operations that don't have the resources to establish the presence themselves.
Zhao's head of a four-person office in a 1,300-square-foot plat in a new office complex going up in downtown Beijing. He's on the 31st floor of the building, working for a state that doesn't have a 31-story building within its own borders. The office has a reception area, Zhao's office, a bathroom, and space for a second office that right now is -- a bedroom. Working with state officials halfway around the world, Zhao keeps weird hours and sometimes sleeps in the office.
He does it because he senses opportunity, he said. "Kansas has what China wants -- agriculture, aviation, energy and education." Globalization presents a challenge to economy of Kansas and every state, but he said he thinks the state can benefit -- if it's smart about it.
"We can create more business for Kansans," he said.