Friday, April 06, 2001

Gov. Taft passes on Chinese trade talk

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        With a military air crew including one Ohioan still being detained by the Chinese government, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft skipped a speech Thursday by a prominent Hong Kong business leader.

        Mr. Taft decided Thursday morning not to attend the speech at the Omni Netherland Plaza downtown by Peter Woo, a University of Cincinnati graduate who is chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

        Mr. Taft said he called Mr. Woo personally Thursday morning and told him that, under the circumstances, he could not attend.

        A similar event scheduled today in Columbus has been postponed.

        “I expressed my regrets. He said he understood,” Mr. Taft said. “It is not a protest. I just felt it would be inappropriate to be promoting economic trade with China without this being resolved.”

        China, Mr. Taft said, “represents an enormous potential market for Ohio goods. I hope this can be resolved soon.”

        Mr. Woo said the standoff could not derail Hong Kong's economy, and played down the crisis in comments to reporters after the speech. He said the detention of 24 Americans by China should be viewed separately from a widening commercial relationship.

        “This should be left to diplomats,” he said. “This is their job.”

        Mr. Taft said the crew in China includes Aviation Machinist 2nd Class Wendy Westbrook from Rock Creek in northeast Ohio.

        Mr. Woo was in Cincinnati to pitch investments in Hong Kong to U.S. companies, and he did just that in a spirited speech to the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.

        Exports from the United States to Hong Kong have more than quadrupled to about $89 million in the last seven years, and Mr. Woo said instant communications and the Internet have made it essential for small- and mid-sized companies to exploit the connection.

        “In the future, trade will be city-to-city, region-to-region and sector-to-sector,” he said. “In order to do that, you need platforms, you need bridges and you need networks.”

        One network is the World Trade Organization, which Hong Kong joined six years ago and which China is scheduled to join this year.

        Another is the trade development council Mr. Woo heads, a collection of large companies and trade officials. He earned a bachelor's in physics and mathematics from UC, and a master's from Columbia Business School.

        He took over leadership of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council last fall.

        Mr. Woo said with the U.S. economy slowing, companies have to diversify their sales beyond U.S. borders and take advantage of the growing Chinese market.

        In Hong Kong, officials have targeted white-collar jobs, while outsourcing many of the manufacturing and industrial jobs to China and other markets.

        That has allowed the former British colony to prosper with its modern legal system, free flow of information and record of enforcing intellectual property rights vigorously.

        The transition to Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong has made little difference in Hong Kong's economic power, Mr. Woo said.

        “It's business as usual,” he said.

        After the luncheon speech at the Omni, Mr. Woo spoke to about 30 business leaders at the chamber offices and met with officials at Firstar Bank downtown.

        The Associated Press and Enquirer reporter Howard Wilkinson contributed to this report.


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