Some call them ''sisters.'' Others call them ''friends.'' Whatever you choose to call them, the American state of Massachusetts and the Chinese province of Guangdong have taken a first step in, to paraphrase an old Chinese proverb, ''a journey of 10,000 miles.''
The friendship agreement signed in Boston Nov. 7 by the governors of Massachussetts and Guangdong Province is one more in a network of nearly a dozen such agreements signed between US states and Chinese provinces in the last three years.
Massachusetts is now in the company of Ohio (linked with Hebei Province), Maryland (Anhui), New Jersey (Zhejiang), Kansas (Henan), Minnesota (Shaanxi), Wisconsin (Heilongjiang), Illinois (Liaoning), Washington and Michigan (Sichuan) , and Iowa (Hebei).
The American hopes behind these agreements are hardly new. Many anAmerican businessman has returned from a visit to China impressed by the vast numbers of potential buyers in that land of 1 billion people.
China sees these state friendship arrangements as a way to learn from American technology. The aim is to help China's still isolated economy modernize , thus increasing its capacity to supply its own people and also earn foreign exchange by selling more overseas.
In some cases, Chinese provinces have sought ties with US states with similar economic profiles. Thus agricultural Henan is linked to an agricultural twin, Kansas, to gain more modern agricultural techniques.
By contrast, subtropical and agricultural Guangdong links up with northern, nonagricultural Massachusetts to buy high-tech products or learn from the Bay State's high-tech expertise. The province seeks to improve manufacturing in its three special export zones.
Despite effusive explanations of mutual economic benefit, cultural differences still show. In describing these agreements, the United States partners often informally use the term ''sister state,'' while the Chinese prefer to use the term ''friend.'' The reason? In the Chinese language there are two different words for older and younger sister. In any agreement between sisters, then, the implication is that one will be senior and one will be junior. The Chinese seek to avoid any implication that either side is a junior partner.
The agreement with Guangdong is something of a coup for Massachusetts, since the province is considered one of China's most dynamic and outward-looking areas. To help win more foreign exchange, three relatively autonomous export areas were established in Guangdong in 1980, partly to facilitate cooperation with overseas business. Chinese managers have sought to attract foreign investment and joint-production arrangements, often working with overseas Chinese entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia and elsehere.
But Massachussetts appears more committed to an exclusive relationship than is Guangdong. Massachusetts Secretary of Economic Affairs Evelyn Murphy says that for Massachusetts, the agreement with Guangdong is exclusive. The state will not seek a similar agreement with any other Chinese province.
Guangdong's governor, Liang Lingguang, says that although it is possible for a Chinese province to have ties with more than one state, it is more customary for there to only be one such tie. But he did leave the door open, noting that the possibility of a tie between between Guangdong and high-tech rich California ''had not been raised.''
The Massachusetts agreement reaffirms historical ties. Chinese-American trade relations began between Massachussetts and Guangdong some two centuries ago. Yankee ports sent seafarers across the Pacific in search of exquisite Chinese porcelain, silks, and paintings from the ''Canton trade.'' Today's US businessmen sometimes sound like their forbears.
''Just think of it. Even if we sold only one shoe to each Chinese, what an opportunity that would be,'' says Jack Renni of the Small Business Association of New England. That remark echoes hopes voiced by late 19th-century American businessmen, who sometimes declared prosperity would be assured if every Chinese woman would buy just one made-in-America straight pin.
The ''friendship'' establishes a pattern of visits and consultations involving state and corporate leaders. It may help expedite business through China's elaborate bureaucracy.
A total of 73 Guangdong province production projects have been listed that could be helped by contacts with the Massachusetts industrial base. These include electronic toys, hi-fi equipment, industrial machinery, medical instruments, floor polish, and detergents.
In accordance with usual Chinese practice, dealings with Chinese-Americans will smooth economic and technical dealings. The fact that the majority of Chinese-Americans in Massachusetts are of Guangdong descent may help the partnership. Chinese officials often feel most comfortable when dealing with Chinese-Americans, notes one US analyst.