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Twin Cities businesses giving to China’s earthquake recovery effort

At least five Minnesota companies have joined a broad corporate alliance seeking to help China’s Sichuan Province recover from the massive May 12 earthquake that devastated the region.

3M, Cargill, Best Buy, Target and the Dorsey & Whitney law firm are extending the aid in an effort being coordinated by the U.S.-China Business Council. The five companies are among eight Minnesota business members of the council, which advocates for close commercial ties between the United States and China.

According to a running account of each of the companies’ donations posted on the council’s website, the council’s members have pledged more than $43 million in cash so far for aid to earthquake victims. They have also promised in-kind goods and services worth more than $72 million and established matching funds for their employees.

John Frisbie, president of the Washington, D.C.-based council, cited the donations last week when he visited the Twin Cities.

Frisbie was here to address the St. Paul-Minneapolis Committee on Foreign Relations. In an interview, he stressed that China has a huge stake in the success of the U.S. economy, just as the United States has much to gain from continued economic growth in China.

The growing commercial ties between the two countries are stoking fears among many Americans, but Frisbie stresses that the increasing engagement is benefiting both nations.

“It’s our most important economic relationship going forward,” Frisbie says. “We need to get smarter about China.”

China has sustained a stunningly high and fairly consistent pace of growth in recent years. According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, the Chinese economy has grown at rates ranging from 7 percent to just over 14 percent every year since 1991.

Fears widespread

But the growth has unsettled many Americans, who see it coming at the expense of U.S. jobs. Frisbie pointed to a year-old Zogby-UPI survey of 5,000 Americans showing that 55 percent of respondents see China’s economic rise and growing trade as a threat while only 25 percent think it’s a benefit. The survey also found that 61 percent of respondents feel China’s growth has hurt the U.S. job market.

Those feelings may have intensified since the survey, given several recent high-profile controversies. These include concerns about tainted consumer products such as toys and drugs, China’s human rights policies toward Tibet and the protests of those policies that marked some stops on the international torch-carrying ritual that was part of the run-up to the Olympic Games this summer in Beijing.

Such perceptions have spurred calls in Congress for tariffs and tough talk about currency exchange relationships. The council tries to counter such concerns, for example by marshaling evidence that declines in U.S. manufacturing jobs are caused mainly by efficiency-inducing productivity gains rather than by trade imbalances.

In doing so, the organization reflects the interests of U.S. transnational corporations that benefit from doing business in China. It also argues that the rising commercial ties are leading to broader reforms in China.

Richard Bohr, a China specialist who teaches Asian history at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, agrees with Frisbie. Bohr says the council has been influential in strengthening the bonds between the two nations. He acknowledges the concerns, including those raised in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign, but predicts that the U.S. policy of increased engagement with China will continue next year regardless of who wins the election.

“We’re not going to turn the clock back,” says Bohr.

The U.S.-China Business Council was formed in 1973, shortly after President Nixon’s pioneering trip to China helped to set the stage for the United States and China to renew diplomatic relations in 1979. China had a small, closed and backward-looking economy at the time. Bohr credits the council for anticipating the transition that led to today’s booming times in China.

Backed by Minnesota companies
Today, the council has about 250 corporate members, including at least eight in Minnesota, the five announced donors plus MTS Systems, Hutchinson Technology and the Faegre & Benson law firm.

David Raisbeck, vice chair at Cargill, is a director. 3M CEO George Buckley will join the board next month. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, 3M’s former chief executive, chairs the council.

Frisbie said China ranked as Minnesota’s third-highest destination for exports last year, trailing only Canada and Mexico. The state’s exports to China quintupled to $1.04 billion from $207 million in 2000, the year before China joined the World Trade Organization.

Yet despite its immense growth, the Chinese economy is still less than a third the size of the U.S. economy, Frisbie said. Last year, the combined economies of just two populous states — California and Texas — were as large as China’s entire economy.

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