XI'AN, China — Nebraskans, meet your new sister state.
Like the Cornhusker State, Shaanxi province is an agricultural area in its country's heartland — an area sometimes overshadowed by better-known, more-populous coastal areas.
Its biggest city, Xi'an, marked the start of the Silk Road trade route to Europe and the Middle East. Nebraska also knows something about pioneering trails.
Several of Shaanxi's universities already have ties with Nebraska institutions. Among other things, the University of Nebraska operates an American Cultural Center on the campus of Xi'an Jiaotong University.
But ties between the two were strengthened Tuesday when Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Shaanxi Gov. Zhao Zhengyong signed an agreement to establish a sister state relationship.
Heineman said the partnership is significant, even though it promises nothing specific and involves no binding commitments. He said Nebraska would benefit if the agreement, as officials hope, leads to export deals for Nebraska companies or Chinese investments in Nebraska.
“We already have developed a special relationship that we want to make even stronger in the future,” Heineman told his Shaanxi counterpart.
In some ways, there's no comparison between Shaanxi and Nebraska — with 37 million residents, the province has about 20 times as many people as Nebraska. While the high-rise buildings and traffic congestion seemed smaller scale than in Beijing, the provincial capital of Xi'an still is a bustling major city.
As the Nebraska delegation was taken by bus from the airport to downtown Xi'an, members gasped when seeing a deep construction pit that stretched several blocks. If this is the foundation, people wondered, how vast would the building be?
The city's economic growth can be seen even at the Nebraska trade mission's hotel, the Sofitel on Renmin Square. A few decades ago, foreign travelers were steered to the Xi'an People's Hotel, an imposing, Soviet-style structure built in the 1950s, where the rooms were starkly decorated.
Now that old building is a gutted shell under renovation — noisily, through the night — and guests stay in a pair of modern, curving, glass and marble towers built in front of the old hotel. Rooms are luxurious, and glass elevators overlook Renmin Square, which is brightly lit in neon colors.
The sister state agreement was the main reason for the Xi'an leg of the Nebraskans' three-city tour of China this week. A lengthy flight delay Tuesday put the group nearly three hours behind schedule and caused some scheduling changes.
Even so, some members of the Nebraska group were able to quickly tour the famous archaeological site near Xi'an where thousands of life-size terra-cotta warriors were buried, according to military rank, near an emperor's mausoleum.
Heineman and others in the delegation skipped that tour and sped into the city with a police escort to visit the UNL-operated American Cultural Center.
Then came the carefully choreographed signing ceremony with the Shaanxi governor.
The two governors made brief, friendly remarks to each other, translated one sentence at a time, while audience members sat in rows of armchairs and were served tea.
Photos were taken and gifts exchanged — Heineman was given a model of horses pulling a chariot, and he reciprocated with framed artwork depicting a dragon.
Then the group moved to another room with a wall-sized backdrop printed just for the occasion, with a description in English and Mandarin of the event's purpose. After the documents were signed, everyone toasted each other — most with wine, although Heineman's glass, as usual, contained water.
Today, Chinese and Nebraska business representatives were expected to learn more about each other and hold one-on-one meetings that could lay the groundwork for future deals.
Business dealings in China tend to be based on relationships, so the thinking is that a stronger relationship through the sister state arrangement is more likely to produce actual investments or exports.
“It puts Nebraska in a priority situation for any opportunities,” said Catherine Lang, Nebraska's director of economic development.
Government connections like the Nebraska-Shaanxi pairing are helpful in China because the government controls or influences many of the companies with which Nebraska firms would do business.
In practice, however, sister state relationships are only as effective as their follow-up efforts.
Since 2004, Nebraska has had a similar pairing with China's Guizhou province, but it hasn't developed into much.
Similarly, Minnesota has been linked with Shaanxi province for many years with little results, although that state's governor did visit earlier this year.
Wyoming has been talking with Shaanxi officials partly because both areas are involved with coal production. Wyoming's governor was in Xi'an in early June.
Heineman said Nebraska has a good chance of making something of its new partnership because of existing ties, particularly in education, and because such efforts appear to be a current priority for China's leadership.
While China has made incredible economic progress in recent years by boosting manufacturing capacity and developing the nation's infrastructure, not all parts of China have shared equally in those gains.
At meetings Monday in Beijing with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and the head of China's trade promotion agency, Heineman was told repeatedly that China wanted more business ties with “heartland” provinces.
Heineman, in turn, has been stressing that point to provincial leaders — casting the message he heard in Beijing as practically a mandate from the national government.
Local officials already know what their mandate is, said Peter Golder, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Golder, who studies U.S.-Chinese business ties, said every government leader in China is evaluated based on how much economic growth is achieved on his watch.
Golder said states like Nebraska should target other, smaller cities and provinces because they may be hungrier to do deals.
Xi'an, he noted, is far from an undiscovered part of China. Major international companies are in Xi'an, and Samsung Electronics earlier this year announced a $7 billion factory there to make computer memory chips.
Even so, Golder said, there's still plenty of room in Xi'an for other deals.
Heineman said Chinese leaders are encouraging states and provinces to help their businesses make mutually beneficial deals because they can pursue them on their own, without the political considerations at the national level.
“Both China and the United States stand to gain from an expanding and improving economic relationship,” Heineman said.
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