There’s plenty of pomp associated with a foreign dignitary’s visit. It’s a chance to highlight a region to a foreign audience and bolster political ties (or mend broken ones), but it’s also a chance for businesses to make headway in another nation.
With the visit this week of Chinese President Xi Jinping, area companies had the opportunity to do the latter with a country that has remained elusive, especially to those in the tech industry. China’s communist government means that state-run companies are economic powerhouses, and Xi’s office has more control over, and in some cases very un-American views on, topics such as censorship.
Alas, this was one in which companies with heavy Eastside ties did some grandstanding. Here were the major takeaways:
Yesterday, Xi and a host of China’s top regulators, including Lu Wei, China’s Internet chief, met with tech dignitaries at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond. In part, Xi told those gathered what they wanted to hear: That China takes cyber security seriously, and views it as an essential ingredient in facilitating commerce between the two nations.
In his remarks, Xi said a “secure, stable, and prosperous cyberspace” must be facilitated for both the Chinese and the U.S. economies to continue growing.
But underlying Xi’s comments were more awkward elements of China’s relationship with the West and its Internet culture. The first tech dignitary to greet Xi yesterday was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose website is blocked in China. Missing from the banquet were top executives from Alphabet (né Google). The company’s sites, including its search engine, are either blocked or heavily censored in China, and the company has had a fraught relationship with Chinese regulators for years. Microsoft, for its part, has struggled with Chinese software pirating and the government’s rumored discouraging use of Microsoft products.
In response to censorship complaints, Xi told the audience that cooperation should take place within the “national realities” that China faces, but any justification of censorship irks Western tech companies with a strong open-Internet ethos.
Further complicating Xi’s reception was the revelation a day before his arrival that the fingerprints of 5.6 million federal employees were among the documents stolen this summer by hackers linked to China. Though the individuals or organization behind the hacks isn’t known, investigators believe China is building a database of American officials. The topic went unmentioned in Washington state, but surely will be a point of discussion when Xi visits Washington, D.C., to meet with President Barack Obama.
The biggest winner in Xi’s visit very likely is Boeing, which announced plans to build 300 planes for Chinese customers, a deal valued at about $38 billion. The orders will give Boeing a foothold in the world’s second-largest economy, one with a fast-growing middle class, and one that thus far has been dominated by Airbus. “You think about it from a population perspective, China is about four times the size of the United States,” Randy Tinseth, vice president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told reporters. “Its middle class is bigger than the population of the United States.”
But the big order doesn’t come without controversy. Part of the deal is Boeing opening a production facility — its first outside the U.S. — that will put the finishing touches on 737 planes, work that would otherwise be done in Renton. The local Machinists union predictably was opposed. Approximately 100 people protested the announcement in Renton Thursday morning.
“We understand the need to sell airplanes,” said John Holden, president of the Machinists District Lodge 751, “but when Boeing uses our jobs as bargaining chips, that’s something we can’t support.”
Boeing said no jobs will be lost at the Renton factory.
Boeing wasn’t the only one making alliances. Tsinghua University and the University of Washington, partners in the Global Innovation Exchange graduate school to be built in Bellevue, furthered their commitment to work on clean technology and smart cities. Nuclear company TerraPower, which is backed by Bill Gates, will collaborate with China’s state-run nuclear entity to build a prototype of a reactor that can run on spent fuel rods.
Yes, traffic was the worst
When Xi’s contingent was in motion, nobody else was. Portions of Interstates 5 and 405, as well as state Route 520, were closed for significant stretches of Xi’s visit, which meant commutes were a nightmare. Unless you were as fortunate as our photographer, Rachel Coward, who sneaked on to I-5 just before it closed down for good.
A dream for Rachel, a nightmare for the rest of us.