North Carolina received its most important guest of the year in Charlotte Wednesday and his name wasn’t Trump, Obama, Clinton — or even Lebron James or Stephen Curry.
Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, attended a reception to celebrate the Chinese New Year and encourage more ties between the Carolinas and China. More than 200 Chinese living in North Carolina and South Carolina attended the event at the downtown Sheraton, along with several dozen business and political leaders, including Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C. Rep Rodney Moore, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Commerce Secretary John Skvarla, Central Piedmont Community College President Tony Zeiss and Raleigh lawyer Larry Robbins. (Earlier in the day, Tiankai visited Waddell Language Academy, an outstanding Charlotte public school where Mandarin is taught.)
Even with its economic growth slowing to 6.9% last year, Tiankai said China still accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s output gains. He noted North Carolina ranks among the two or three leading centers of direct Chinese investment in the U.S., with a cumulative total of $5.5 billion. Among the big investors are computer maker Lenovo, meat producer Shangui International Holdings, which bought Smithfield Foods, and textile manufacturer Keer, which opened a $28 million plant last year just across the state line in Lancaster County, South Carolina.
China also relies on North Carolina’s educators — about 5,000 Chinese students attend colleges and universities here, he said.
China’s five-year economic plan emphasizes a shift from selling its products to overseas customers to more internal consumption, he said. That is a bit late for the hundreds of thousands of textiles, furniture and other manufacturing jobs lost in the Carolinas over the past 30 years. But the inward focus should enhance the ability of U.S. companies to export their products to the Asian nation, he said.
The most interesting speechmaking involved U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger. While McCrory, Roberts and others stuck to the “Let’s all get along” theme, the Charlotte congressman said China needs to clean up its act by stopping cyber attacks on U.S. business and abusing the human rights of too many Chinese. He noted that the U.S. has plenty of its own warts, citing rampant violence and the often vulgar, coarse nature of our media-obsessed culture.
Later, I asked Pittenger why he confronted the ambassador in such a convivial setting. “I believe in honest relationships,” he said. “There is no price that can be applied to the value of liberty.”
(If you want to know more about the current status of civil liberties in China, go here to read Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report.)
So did the straight talk upset the ambassador? Not at all, Pittenger said. The ambassador invited him for further talks at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.