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In Panama, a Chinese businessman succeeds but stays connected

By QIU QUANLIN | China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-26 07:04

From his hometown in the Huadu district of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Mai Qijia told his story of leaving for Panama at the age of 32, looking for better business opportunities.

He was one of hundreds of people from the district who sought profits abroad in the early 1980s, shortly after China had begun to implement its reform and opening-up policy.

Before moving, Mai, now honorary president of the Chinese Association of Panama, ran a store in China specializing in hardware accessories and farm machine maintenance.

"Like other people who had already gone abroad, I wanted to go and expand business," said Mai, now 61.

But life was tough in the first several years. Mai could only find work at a supermarket operated by Chinese people.

Later, he started his own supermarket.

"It took me five years to start my own business in Panama," Mai said, adding that about 80 percent of the service businesses in the country are operated by Chinese.

Mai expanded further, taking on a construction company and introducing more than 100 people from Huadu to Panama to help run his businesses.

His supermarket business in Panama is now mainly operated by his son, and Mai frequently flies back to Huadu.

"Young people in my hometown now are not willing to go abroad simply for business. China's rapid economic development in recent decades has provided huge opportunities for them to start businesses at home," Mai said.

He estimates that 200,000 overseas Chinese are living in Panama, of whom more than 25 percent are natives of Huadu.

Mai brought his wife and two children to Panama five years after he first arrived.

"My family has settled down in Panama and has developed businesses there," he said. "But my son has often talked to me about how we could start new businesses at home."

China and Panama established diplomatic ties in June, and Mai hoped a direct flight would begin soon between the two countries. He travels frequently.

"A direct flight would help boost trade and social interaction," he said. "We overseas Chinese would benefit a lot from the convenience."

China is the second-heaviest user of the Panama Canal after the United States. Trade between the two countries reached $6.5 billion in 2016, according to the General Administration of Customs.

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which ended in Beijing on Tuesday, will help create a better life for Chinese people overseas, Mai said.

"We have already seen improved livelihoods for people since China's reform and opening-up in the late 1970s," he said. "There will be increased business and a better living environment for overseas Chinese people as the country rides the tide of rapid economic development and extends its influence around the globe."

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