Interview: Kristi Heim looking back on Xi Jinping's visit to Washington state and her two years leading the China Council
By Wen Liu Feb. 1, 2016
In January 2014, Kristi Heim (韩菁), once the award-winning journalist at the Seattle Times, took over as the president of the Washington State China Relations Council. It seemed to be in her fate that she would arrive at the helm of the Council at that moment: her years of China-related study and work, a deep family connection, with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all born in China, and, waiting for her on the horizon, two historic events for the Council: the 35th anniversary in 2014 and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2015. Now with the Council’s 36th annual banquet just wrapped up, Kristi finally had a little time to talk, about her job, Xi Jinping’s visit, and more. Don’t forget, Kristi used to be a professional writer/interviewer, now let’s see how Kristi is doing in this interview with her on the other side of the table.
WCWD: The top China story of 2015 for Washington state is, of course, the visit by President Xi Jinping in September. Could you share with the readers as to what role the Council played in making his visit such a great success, for Washington’s business as well as Washington state-China relations?
Kristi Heim: The Council worked closely with all of the key stakeholders – including multiple Chinese government agencies, corporate leaders and members of our civic community – to promote the deep ties between our region and China. We worked diligently to ensure the visit was successful for all the parties involved. This effort included everything from advising on the itinerary and preparing briefing documents to hiring interpreters, helping plan the dinner and working with the media.
President Xi’s visit was also the result of a longer effort to foster relations between Washington state and China. Over the past year, for example, we had co-organized the Boao Forum for Asia Seattle conference and hosted many important leaders, including the Minister of Science and Technology, the Governor and Deputy Secretary of Guangdong, Vice Governor of Sichuan and the Mayor of Shenzhen. The University of Washington had also just signed a groundbreaking partnership with Tsinghua University. Our successful track record on events of this sort built confidence on both sides.
The Council’s members, including Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, the University of Washington and others, have been deeply engaged with China for a long time, and this visit helped reinforce those relationships at the highest level and call attention to all the great work they are doing. It also provided a platform for frank discussions of issues such as cyber security and intellectual property protection.
We wanted the visit to show the Seattle region and Washington state as a world-class hub of innovation, international engagement and environmental sustainability. That was one of our major accomplishments. For example, in the case of media coverage, there were more than 180 articles from local, national and international media covering the events, many of which focused on the Seattle region’s close and deepening ties with China.
WCWD: In 1979, the year the Council was born, the Seattle P-I had this headline when Deng Xiaoping was in town meeting local business leaders: “Pragmatic Chinese, Practical Seattle.” It could have been used last year when Xi was here. Do you think “practical” describes Washington’s relations with China?
Kristi Heim: Today the term “practical” does not sufficiently grasp the robustness of the relationship, nor does it speak to the reciprocal nature of our ties with China, or the complexities of this opportunity. With so many kinds of cross-border exchanges taking place on a daily basis, I would use the words “dynamic” and “holistic” to more accurately describe how our state engages with China in the economic, government, academic and civil society sectors. In addition, our local Chinese community plays a vibrant role in our region’s cultural identity. We are certainly being practical in our approach to relationships with China, but that term does not capture the totality of our engagement.
WCWD: Since the Council just held its annual banquet for 2015, maybe we can talk about the speakers. For 2014, for instance, you had Jian Wang, Chief Technology Officer of Alibaba as the keynote speaker. This year, you had Lebin Wu, Chairman of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Holdings, and Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. Did you choose them to reflect the growing Chinese business and investment in the state?
WCWD: Kristi Heim: The annual banquet is a chance to hear from influential local leaders engaged in the Washington state-China relationship, as well as national and international experts. Alibaba and the Chinese Academy of Sciences Holdings are both very influential companies in China that have business and investments in our state, so we invited them to talk about their plans in a global context. As one of the world’s foremost authorities on China’s development, Dr. Cheng Li gave our audience an insider’s perspective on China’s political and economic outlook and the implications for U.S. companies.
WCWD: Your predecessors, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, worked hard to promote Washington’s trade with China. In 2014, Washington state became the top exporter to China, at over $20 billion, outdoing huge states like California and New York. Does this mean that the Council could now shift its focus of work on trade to other areas or have a different focus?
Kristi Heim: I think the focus on trade is always going to be important, because our state’s economy is so closely linked to trade, and because of our proximity to Asia, which is closer than other West Coast ports. On trade and investment, the Council works with partners such as the Washington State Department of Commerce, Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle and others. If we can help more Washington companies export to China, help start-ups gain access to Chinese capital, and attract more companies from China to our state, then we can broaden the benefits of trade to more people. But that is just one focus for the Council. Other important aspects of our work are fostering understanding of China and U.S.-China relations, and promoting partnerships at the subnational level to address issues of common concern.
WCWD: Last April, Seattle and Shenzhen, China, formed a new partnership when a Shenzhen delegation was here and signed a number of MOUs with Seattle companies. In December, a Seattle delegation, of which you were a member, paid a visit to Shenzhen. How did this relationship come about and what is its significance?
Kristi Heim: This relationship developed during Gov. Jay Inslee’s trade mission to China in 2013. We helped set up a visit to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and during the visit many common interests were identified, such as technology innovation, environmental sustainability, outdoor adventure and philanthropy. The leaders we met there were very welcoming and excited to partner with Washington. The Council has a partnership with the Shenshang Business Elites Union, part of the General Chamber of Commerce, the leading business association in Shenzhen. We worked with them to bring about 70 top business leaders from Shenzhen to Seattle last year, including China Vanke Chairman Wang Shi and Kingdee Software Chairman Robert Xu. We helped build a partnership between the cities of Seattle and Shenzhen that focuses on promoting a green economy. Many important agreements between companies and organizations were signed at our Seattle event on Earth Day.
The significance is that some of the brightest people from the most innovative cities in the U.S and China are coming together to work for common goals and ideals, and the WSCRC has been helping to facilitate this process.
WCWD: Last and certainly not the least, you have been the president of the Council for two years now, and the first female to do so. How do you like the job so far? Do you have a different approach? And what are your plans for the future of the Council in the new realities of U.S.-China relations today “now spreading over practically the entire map of American governmental, political, economic, and even social life” as Dr. Robert Kapp, the Council’s founding executive director, said recently?
Kristi Heim: This is probably the most challenging and rewarding job I have had so far, and the timing could not have been more exciting. The Council has an incredible 36-year legacy as the first organization that brought Washington and China together. At the same time, we are reflecting today’s more complex reality in recognizing our role as a crucial platform for companies, leaders and individuals in our state to expand and enrich our engagement with China.
It's an honor to be the first woman to lead the Council. I see this as part of a positive trend of inclusion of women in leadership roles as international ambassadors, and I hope it can encourage a growing number of women business leaders on both sides.
Our membership and board is more diverse, bilingual and bicultural than before. We have a Young Leaders group to develop the next generation of China experts. Our members now include not only the best Washington companies doing business in China but also some of the best Chinese companies doing business in Washington. Our revenue and membership have increased significantly over the past two years. We have now more than 130 members, most of them companies or organizations.
The relationship is constantly evolving. The Council needs to adapt to and anticipate these changes so we stay relevant and remain at the forefront of the relationship. I anticipate 2016 to see an even greater influx of Chinese investment into our region, and deeper engagement in China for Washington companies. On the heels of President Xi’s visit, Washington state will continue to rise in importance in the broader U.S.-China relationship.
My approach is entrepreneurial. Washington state is a place with a pioneering spirit, a culture of innovation and a collaborative nature. I hope to apply those characteristics to our mission, and build a strong model for constructive relations with China.
(For more information about Kristi Heim, go to WA China Hands. For more information about Washington State China Relations Council, go to WA China Nonprofits. For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)