Mayor raising Bellevue's trade profile in China
Updated: 2012-11-02 11:36
By Chen Jia in Bellevue (China Daily)
Conrad Lee, mayor of Bellevue, Washington, talks about his business-development plans for the city in a recent interview. Lee, Bellevue's first Chinese-American mayor, took office early this year. Chang Jun / China Daily
When Conrad Lee overheard a Chinese investor discussing possible places in the United States to park his money, he hoped the name Bellevue would come up.
It didn't. But while overlooking the second-biggest local economy in Washington state in favor of more-famous US destinations might not be surprising, Lee aims to change things.
A Chinese-American who is the first member of any ethnic minority to serve as Bellevue's mayor, he is disappointed that more people, including foreign investors, don't know about this retail and commercial hotbed.
Bellevue, according to Lee, needs more channels through which to approach Chinese investors.
"I see a lot of room to progress, and it has topped my agenda as mayor," he said.
One of the city's latest efforts was the June launch of an online magazine, BellevueCN.com, with help from China-based IT service provider iSoftStone. The magazine, with content in both Mandarin and English, is intended to build a community of technological leadership between the Bellevue-Seattle region and China, Lee said.
With local government officials in the US and China working to establish cross-border investment ties, Lee wants his city to be among the top competitors.
California, also on the West Coast, annually draws more Chinese investment than any other US state. A recent Asia Society report forecasts Chinese direct investment in California to continue growing by triple-digit percentages, potentially reaching $60 billion a year by 2020.
"I hope Bellevue could be quickly established as the standard of bilateral cooperation," said Lee, who has visited China three times in the past 10 months in a search for economic opportunities for his city.
As the home of Microsoft Corp - its headquarters are in Redmond, near Bellevue - Washington state has been a major source of technology-outsourcing work for China, but it also sees contracts coming the other way, Lee said.
On his latest visit to China, he visited Beijing, Nanjing and Jinan where he found domestic companies looking to increase their investment in information technology, medical-device design and renewable energy in Washington.
Since 2007, Bellevue has had cooperation agreements with the Chinese cities of Dalian and Qingdao to promote trade involving local businesses. Many local business groups and other institutions support this effort, Lee said.
Companies based in Bellevue are engaged in a broad swath of trade-driven industries - aerospace, software design, medical products, trade financing, and architectural and engineering consulting. Their trading partners are in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
"At the heart of this effort is an intention to improve cultural understanding between two sides, which is not so easy," he said.
It helps if potential Chinese investors see that doing business with Bellevue companies is an idea that has public support and the backing of local government.
Born in China, Lee immigrated to the US and settled in Bellevue in 1967. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Washington.
Lee got his start in public service as a regional administrator of the federal Small Business Administration and as a project manager for Seattle's solid-waste-disposal agency. He has also worked as an engineer at aircraft giant Boeing Co.
His city is emerging as a business hub, particularly in technology. Lee touts Bellevue's business-friendly environment and vibrant downtown. Its population of 122,000 has risen 11.4 percent over the past decade. Forty percent of residents are members of an ethnic minority, including 27 percent who identify as Asian-American. One-quarter of Bellevue's residents are, like Lee, foreign-born.
Along with getting married, Lee counts his emergence as a Chinese-American political leader as his most important milestone.
"If immigrants want to influence or change something, they need to get involved in the community and make their political voice heard," he said.
The mayor has pushed to develop a financial plan for Bellevue extending 20 years - far longer than most US cities.
Figuring into the long-range plan is steady investment from China, and backed, enhanced bilateral cooperation. Lee calls these "the most important reasons that I am so confident about the city's rapid growth".