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Chinese leader's visit viewed in different shades ; Local Chinese proud of nation's rise as business concerns continue to mount

For Chinese-Americans like Dr. Lixin Zhang, this week's state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao was a great moment for his homeland.

"Now you see the growth in China, and it is really incredible," said Zhang, president of the Chinese Club of Western New York. "Everyone is so proud of that progress. China has much more leverage now."

But that's exactly what troubles American businesspeople like David P. Sullivan, president of Industrial Support Inc. of Buffalo, the company President Obama visited on his trip to the city last May.

Summit or no summit, "I don't think we're doing a very good job" of leveling the trade playing field with the world's fastest-growing economy, Sullivan said.

"Just look at the number of jobs going to China" -- which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, totaled about 2.4 million between 2001 and 2008. Some 20,000 of those jobs came from the four congressional districts stretching from Elmira westward, including Buffalo and Rochester, the labor-backed think tank said.

Hu's visit made big news this week in Washington, where Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House was lined with alternating U.S. and Chinese flags and where Obama hosted Hu at a lavish state dinner.

But Hu's visit and the diplomacy surrounding it also mattered deeply to many in Buffalo, home to a small but vibrant Chinese community and a struggling manufacturing sector whose leaders see China both as a threat and an opportunity.

And in the end, the Chinese expats, Buffalo businesspeople and local lawmakers come to one central conclusion.

Hu's visit was yet another sign that China has re-emerged as a world power -- one with a complex and co-dependent relationship with America that's making a huge impression on Buffalo and the rest of the nation.

No one disputes that China's influence is growing, but many in Buffalo believe that power was earned through unfair business practices that decimated American manufacturing. And Sullivan is one of them.

For one thing, Chinese factories pay workers far less than their American counterparts, he noted. Chinese companies are also buoyed by a government policy that, despite modest recent improvements, has kept the value of the nation's currency artificially low, thereby encouraging Chinese exports.

>Interdependency

"How do you compete?" asked Sullivan, whose small manufacturing company recently lost two major contracts to Asian competitors.

That's a question that Buffalo-area lawmakers have been asking for years.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has pushed back hard against Chinese currency manipulation and trade practices, to little effect.

Now Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who studied in China and speaks Mandarin, is taking up the mantle. She gripes about China's currency practices and its hoarding of rare earth elements that are crucial to high-tech industries -- and criticizes Hu for ignoring those issues.

"I think the Obama administration is working very hard to move China in a direction that's beneficial for both nations," she said. "But it is difficult to be successful in negotiations with the Chinese because we are focused on so many issues."

Besides, Gillibrand noted, "China owns the majority of our [national] debt. Because they own our debt, that gives them some leverage."

She also noted, though, that China relies on the U.S., by far its biggest overseas market.

"So we're very intertwined," she said.

Unfortunately, American companies often have trouble entering the Chinese market, said Rep. Chris Lee, R-Amherst.

"Trade barriers need to be brought down in China so there's a level playing field for American products," he said.

Robert L. Stevenson, chief executive officer of Eastman Machine Co. of Buffalo, agreed, saying that lowering trade barriers is the one tangible improvement Americans can demand and expect.

China will never let the value of its currency be set by the markets, Stevenson said, because that would wreck Chinese manufacturers and throw vast numbers of people out of work, possibly leading to social unrest.

>Local firm 'ripped off'

And Stevenson -- whose cutting-machine company's products have lost market share to a pirated Chinese knock-off that sells "Westman machines" -- said the western concept of intellectual property rights clashes with Chinese culture.

"I have had people come up to me at trade shows and say: 'We are so grateful for your products; we hope you appreciate that we copy your machines,' " Stevenson said. "They think it's a compliment."

Still, Stevenson said lowering China's trade barriers would be good for both countries.

"There is a demand for U.S.-made products," said Stevenson, whose company also has a factory in China. "They want quality stuff."

Proof of that came this week, when the Boeing Co. signed a deal to sell $19 billion in jets to China, meaning those planes will be built by an American company rather than its chief rival, Europe-based Airbus.

"I think that's great," said Jeff Wang, president of Global Synergizers Inc., an import-export company based in Clarence. "That's outstanding."

Wang, a past president of the Chinese Club, said such deals are proof that a rising China can be good for America. And he said he felt the summit was a success, given that it clearly reduced tensions over issues such as North Korea's military adventurism.

"This visit will help us come back to better relations," Wang said.

From the Chinese perspective, Hu's visit was just the latest triumph in a three-decade run of good news that includes the successful 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, an open-door economic policy that has led to unfathomable economic growth and the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

>Reasons for pride

For Chinese-born American citizens such as Zhang, it's a welcome change from China's history of the previous century. Decades of colonization and invasion gave way to the self-inflicted mass starvation of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" -- but then Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, opened the economy.

"For so long, China was so depressed, so suppressed from outside and inside, too," said Zhang, holder of a medical degree and Ph.D. and medical director of the Dent Dizziness and Balance Center at the Dent Neurologic Institute in Amherst. "But now people's confidence is growing. You can feel that everywhere when you are in China."

China's growing prominence leads to honors like a state dinner -- something President George W. Bush denied Hu on his 2006 visit to America.

Zhang said China still needs to make much progress in recognizing intellectual property rights and ending corruption, but overall, China's growth leads to an obvious conclusion: "We get more respect now from world leaders."

Then again, the Chinese government got a slap last fall, when the Nobel Foundation awarded its Peace Prize to Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, who is imprisoned for "inciting subversion of state power."

And during the summit, Hu acknowledged, without citing specifics: "A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."

While that might be obvious, Wang suggested a different reading of the human rights issue.

Describing Liu as "a regular person with some different opinions that are not realistic," Wang said the dissident's accomplishments pale alongside those of the Chinese state.

"I think human rights are very important, but those people [who criticize China's human rights record] don't understand China," he said. "China has lifted a huge population out of poverty. That's a massive human rights improvement compared to any one individual."

The trouble is, many Americans believe that human rights improvement came at their expense -- which is why Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, expects more from China in the wake of the summit.

"The trip needs to be about more than just a state dinner and a few airplanes; it has to be about a real effort to improve the trade imbalance which has cost America and Western New York jobs," she said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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