SHANGHAI, CHINA — This morning, at the start of his last full day in Shanghai, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak dropped by Target’s tony eighth floor offices in the middle reaches of one of Shanghai’s most exclusive office buildings. Dressed in a gray wool suit that looked a bit warm for the heat of a late Shanghai spring, he was led through darkened offices, and past empty cubicles, by Judy Chung, Target’s vice president for Domestics Global Sourcing. “These are our employees who source — order — Target products,” she said, waving at the empty cubicles. “They’re all out visiting factories. We only meet on Mondays.”
Rybak continued alongside Chung, but the dozen-or-so empty cubicles seemed to catch his attention, and he gave a quick, last glance over his shoulder. After all, it’s there that a very large percentage of the made-in China goods sold at Target — Minneapolis’s biggest retailer — are ordered. “Must be difficult finding all those factories,” he commented.
“Very,” Chung answered, and led him into a conference room where 10 senior employees of Target Sourcing Services — the Target division responsible for ordering goods — were seated and chatting in anticipation of the mayor. As he entered, they rose, smiled and — one by one — approached him for handshakes and nervous exchanges of business cards.
A week into his visit, Rybak has become comfortable with the traditional, formal Chinese method of handing over his card with two hands. In contrast, the Target employees — accustomed to severe, serious Chinese political figures, if they meet them at all — seemed momentarily befuddled by Rybak’s chatty, self-effacing presence. “Minneapolis is an international city,” he told the group. “And it needs to start acting like one.”
In fact, the opportunity to demonstrate that has been around for years: government officials from Harbin, Minneapolis’s Chinese sister city, and a major industrial power in north China, have made multiple visits to Minneapolis, but — until this trip, despite best intentions and invitations — Rybak hadn’t reciprocated. Then, just a few months ago, Rybak was invited to deliver an address on “Urban Development in Tough Economic Times” at a conference to be held in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
“That speech gave us the chance to raise the city’s profile with high-level Chinese government officials. Geneva was the only other city represented,” he explained to me in an interview this afternoon. “And that gets to the whole point of this trip: jobs. I’m not here to climb the Great Wall.” “Pausing, he smiled and added: “Though that would have been great.”
In fact, Rybak’s China trip might be one of the most modest official trips by a U.S. government official that this city — accustomed to large U.S. trade delegations housed in the Portman Ritz-Carlton (such as both Tim Pawlenty trade missions) — has ever seen. Accompanied by exactly one city staff member — Bill Deef, the vice president of tourism sales at Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau — and housed in down-market hotels like the Beijing Howard Johnson’s, Rybak might have succeeded in conveying an image of thrift — if not insolvency — to status-aware Chinese government officials who expect U.S. leaders to live and travel as luxuriously as they do. “He didn’t want to drag along an entire delegation,” Deef explained. “We feel like we get more done this way, anyway.”
At Target, Rybak launches into an informal set of remarks about how much he prefers Chinese food before the 10 managers even have a chance to sit down. These are the raw instincts of a man accustomed to speaking to Americans in informal semi-circles, but they are not the protocols followed by Chinese corporate managers being visited by a big city mayor. Target’s Chung, a woman of considerable tact, interrupted gently. “Actually, we have a small presentation for you. But it’s very informal.”
“Oh, sorry!” Rybak said and took a seat in the front row where, over the course of the next 30 minutes, he was regaled with PowerPoints on China’s geography, the development of Shanghai, Target’s sourcing businesses, and the potential pitfalls in cross-cultural communication. When it’s over, he turns his chair to the assembled managers (without even a glance at the prepared podium), and tells them that he feels very close to Target Corporation for, among other reasons, “My wife started out at Dayton’s.”
Chung cocked her head, looked at the group, and then smiled. “Ah, Dayton!” She said with recognition. “Of course.”
With the remaining 20 minutes, Rybak asked the group to tell him whether most of their colleagues know where Minnesota is (they didn’t), and how he can help promote Minneapolis as a tourist destination. (“We need help knowing where to go.”) Finally, at the end of the meeting, he asked for a show of hands from the group as to who has visited Minneapolis — all of them — and beseeched them to stay an extra few days in the city on their next visit.
Rybak himself isn’t immune to mixing a bit of business with pleasure. His current trip was timed to parallel a visit by a group of Minnesota Chinese-language students that includes his daughter. In Harbin, at the official welcoming dinner, the group sang the Chinese national anthem — in Chinese — and Rybak’s daughter translated his official remarks. “That kind of thing makes a big difference,” he told me with a smile that seemed to convey a struggle between his paternal and civic. “Showing that we’re making the effort to connect here. That we’re ambassadors.”
Diplomacy comes up over and over in the course of the morning and afternoon. With each group of Minnesota-connected managers and employees, Rybak emphasized that he expects them to represent Minneapolis well. “You’re the people who show Chinese people who don’t know Minneapolis, what Minneapolis is all about. When someone asks what it’s like to do business in Minnesota, you’re the ones who know.”
After Target, Rybak, Chung and Deef were ushered into a minivan and driven through the narrow street of Shanghai’s leafy French Concession, on their way to a Delta Airlines-sponsored luncheon in honor of the mayor. For the next 10 minutes and several traffic-choked blocks, Rybak asked Chung and this reporter about President Obama’s image in China (positive), how the global economic crisis is viewed in Shanghai (America’s fault), and what it’s like to live in Shanghai (exhilarating). Then, as the van sped past the Shanghai museum, he turned the conversation back to Target, and how the city of Minneapolis could attract more Chinese tourists from the company’s ranks.
Chung nodded thoughtfully. “You know, next year Target will hold its annual vendor event in Minneapolis,” she told him. “Maybe 1,000 international vendors will come to Minneapolis for it. Perhaps we can work together.”
“Bill,” Rybak said, perking up and turning to his one-man entourage. “That’s huge. We need to get on this. That’s a lot of people. I could even come and give a welcoming speech.”
“Definitely,” Deef responded, already taking notes on the event.
The Delta Luncheon was held in a 24th floor nightclub where Rybak was greeted by Sandeep Bahl, Delta’s general manager for China & Hong Kong, an attractive flight attendant and several of Delta’s top managers in Shanghai. After a brief alcohol-free cocktail reception, he took a middle seat at a long table that seated some 30 people, including representatives of major Minnesota corporations, U.S. Consular officials, Chinese government officials and local media. It was an informal affair, and mostly precursor to the far more important task of preparing the seven guests who would be joining him for the political high-point of his visit: an appointment with Shanghai’s deputy mayor for economic development. “So let me just ask,” Rybak said, leaning back into his chair. “When we meet with the mayor, what can I do to help us?”
Redmond Yeung, president of Best Buy Asia, leaned forward and suggested that the premise of the question was, in fact, wrong. Yeung, who told the mayor that he had met with this deputy before, suggested that this meeting is more of a meet-and-greet to get the city’s attention. “I often talk to our tech guys before meeting him, and bring something to show him. You know, the latest gadget or something. So I think you can go in there and say that while other companies are leaving China during the economic crisis, we’re here to stay. .. I think a meeting like this is more about building bridges and a relationship.”
Rybak nodded. “So what I need to say is that this group represents the best and brightest of what our city has to offer. Fine.”
Still, he wanted to know if there was anything specific that he could address, and over the next few minutes he queried the group on licensing issues and market access. When, finally, the conversation wound down, he asked Yeung if there was a Best Buy store that he could visit nearby. Yeung told him there was, and offered a ride and a walk-through. But the mayor demurred: he wanted to take the subway.
“He’s the mayor,” Deef pipes up, noticing — perhaps — that Yeung found it odd that that a government official would resort to public transit. “Anyway,” Deef added, addressing the mayor directly. “The local media would like to talk to you before we head over to city hall.”
“Let’s do that.”
Deef led him to a young reporter, and a translator, from the Shanghai Evening Post, the city’s most popular and important paper. In her lap was a brochure featuring Minneapolis tourist destinations, and by her side was a translator. “I understand there are 15 museums,” she began, through the translator. “Could you tell me about them?”
Rybak smiled, obviously relieved to be talking culture instead of commerce, and launched into a detailed description of the city’s cultural offerings, making sure to remind her that “the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has one of the world’s best Chinese art collections.”
The reporter cocked her head at him, confused, until the translator clarified.
“Oh,” she nodded, enthusiastically. “Hen hao, hen hao.” Very good, very good.
But there wasn’t much time left to dwell on museums or theaters. Deef and the delegation were beckoning: politics, and the deputy mayor, were waiting.
Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, China, where he covers a range of topics, including religion in contemporary China, the Chinese environment, and cross-cultural issues between the West and Asia. He can be reached through his blog, Shanghai Scrap.