Chinese poet-cum-governor scouts US in search of investment

Chen Lei has worn many hats. He was a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese -- and has written soon-to-be-published poetry about it. He tended oxen and was a prisoner during the Cultural Revolution. And today, as governor of China's Heilongjiang Province, he is touring the United States as businessman and promoter, trying to sell exports and encouraging foreign investment.

Governor Chen talked with the Monitor on the eve of his departure for the United States. His two-week trip, which began Jan. 24, is taking him to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Alaska, as well as New York and Washington.

``My primary wish on this trip is that American businessmen be more open in their willingness to invest in China,'' he said. He especially would like to attract their interest to the resource-rich northeastern province of Heilongjiang where he has been governor since 1978.

Chen's personal commitment to China's ``great northern wilderness'' began when, at 14, he took up the fight against the Japanese occupation of what was then called Manchuria. That struggle went on from 1931 until 1945, during which time Chen wrote poems about the life of a guerrilla soldier fighting in the mountains of Heilongjiang.

A collection of his poetry from those days is scheduled for publication later this year. One of his poems was set to music and became a popular rallying song for the Japanese resistance movement.

During the interview, Chen was reticent when asked about his friendship with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, whom he said he met in Heilongjiang during the war years.

``We don't see each often,'' the governor said, ``but when we meet, we can embrace as old friends.''

Chen visited North Korea in 1983.

After the Communist victory in 1949, Chen's career leaped forward as he become vice-governor and then governor of Heilongjiang from 1952-54.

Asked how he became provincial governor while in his early 30s, Chen explained, ``At that time, things were not so complicated. There was no selection process, people were just appointed. I was appointed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung. I still have the letter signed by him.''

``Besides,'' he said, ``no one else would take that job.''

His last remark referred to the difficulties the province faced 30 years ago, with most of its industries damaged or destroyed by years of fighting and its agriculture underdeveloped. For more than a decade after 1954, Chen served in various posts, including head of a provincial construction corporation and head of the provincial Bureau of Industry.

Then, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he was forced to tend oxen in the province and spent four years in jail. In 1978, he became governor of Heilongjiang for the second time.

The province, with a population of 33 million, is a little smaller than France and accounts for 5 percent of China's total area. It is surrounded on three sides by Soviet Siberia.

It is China's No. 1 producer of timber, soybeans, and dairy products and holds the largest onshore oil fields at Daqing, which produce half of China's crude oil.

Chen said that when he last visited the US in 1982, wherever he went businessmen wanted him to buy American products. ``I tried to convince them that trade and business should be both ways, that you can't expect always to export things to China, but you must also import. . . .''

``Businessmen in Wisconsin even wanted to sell me grain,'' he said with a smile. Heilongjiang straddles the Manchurian plain which is China's richest grain-producing area.

At the end of his US tour, Chen is meeting with Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield, who visited Heilongjiang last October. Chen finalized a sister-state relationship with Alaska yesterday. (Heilongjiang and Wisconsin became sister states in 1982.)

What are the trade prospects between Heilongjiang and Alaska, since in some ways the two economies are very similar?

``Why can't we buy timber from Alaska and resell it?'' Chen asked.

He mentioned supplying Chinese labor to Alaska's labor-short timber industry. Heilongjiang already has about 10,000 citizens working as skilled labor in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and sending remittances back home.

But the governor is especially interested in finding buyers for Heilongjiang's own light industrial products and in finding foreign investors. In late January, the governor released proposals for some 110 projects for foreign investment. He is also looking for foreign partners to tap Heilongjiang's gold and copper resources.

Earlier this month, the province unveiled its regulations giving preferential treatment to foreign investors. These include giving joint ventures the ``first priority'' in resources and materials needed for the business -- including energy, transportation, communications, raw materials, and labor. Foreign businesses will have reduced income taxes, customs-free import of equipment, autonomy in setting prices for products, and other incentives.

Such incentives are fairly typical of those being offered by other provinces. It's unclear if the provincial government has the power to grant some of the incentives like priority access to construction materials, which are under central government control, or tax reductions.

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