Maine’s Market in China

Posted Sept. 19, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

China, whose economy will emerge as the world’s largest and most dominant during this century, must be a focus for Maine if the state is to grow its exports. The same can be said for the nation.

In China, human rights are weak, corruption is rampant, there is little law enforcement and the rules get more and more lax the farther you get from Beijing. While these factors may be seen as serious obstacles, there is one fact that trumps them all — China’s emerging middle class numbers 300 million, equal to the U.S. population.

Though China’s economy is closely regulated by the government, it no longer resembles the communist collectivist organization that held sway under the rule of leader Mao Zedong, according to Suzanne Fox, who operates the Maine-China Business Center in Falmouth.

Fox argues that Maine — even though it is about as far as a U.S. state can be from China — can find markets there. As with all emerging markets, getting in early and forming relationships is the key to success. Networking may be more important for doing business in China than in many other countries.

At the end of September, Fox will host another quarterly round-table discussion in Portland about doing business in China.

One of the key exports Maine might develop for the China market is wood — not pulp for paper, but dimensional lumber, a value-added product. Seafood is also a niche market, as are other food products. Fox has worked to introduce Wyman’s blueberries at food shows in Shanghai. Maine’s high-end boats could be marketed to China’s new wealthy class, too, she said.

Rather than be limited by what are seen as good matches between the Chinese market and Maine products, she recommends all businesses interested in growing exports investigate opportunities. While some West Coast states have permanent offices in China, along with tourism-reliant states like Florida, it might seem a long shot for a New England state to take the plunge with such an investment. Yet, Fox learned that Vermont has done just that. Maine should do the same, she said.

If she could get the ear of the next governor, Fox would tell him or her that a low-risk way to start is to connect with the families of the hundreds of Chinese teens who are attending Maine’s private high schools. Information packets, translated into the appropriate language, could be provided to each family touting Maine as a tourist destination, suggesting real estate and business opportunities and encouraging the son or daughter to attend college here.

If they work at it, Maine entrepreneurs might begin to reverse the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China.

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