Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a (money) match
Annie Wu's eyes sparkle when she talks about matchmaking. The only difference is, the "matrimony" in question is large-scale investment projects, and the partners who join hands through her efforts are international investors and government or business entities in China's vast hinterland.
"Let's face it. Ever since the central government launched the 'Go West' campaign in 1999, there have been more thunderbolts than raindrops," says the 56-year-old CPPCC member from Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
She attributes the slow reaction to myriad factors, including the ineptitude of some local officials. "The more poverty they have, the more they're afraid that you'll snatch away their treasures," she comments, pointing out the less-than-receptive attitude towards outside investment by some officials in the less-developed western regions.
Wu, who has a bustling airline catering business serving half a dozen Chinese cities, decided to be proactive and plunged herself into the "wild wild west."
"For example, Ningxia is not that far away from Beijing, but it looks a world apart. Even inside Ningxia, there is a wide gap between the rich parts and the poor parts."
In 2000, Wu felt that what the region needed was exposure to the outside. She sponsored trips for local officials to visit Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
In 2002, she took a group of South African investors there, leading to a real-estate development deal involving a swathe of wasteland. "The first phase of the project has been sold out. Most of the buyers are domestic investors who, encouraged by government policies, went west for opportunities."
Wu has also been involved in partnerships between mining companies of Ningxia and South Africa, "transforming coal into petroleum."
"What Ningxia needs right now is the training of local talent. They need people with foreign language proficiency and management expertise," she says.
"Ningxia products have a potential market in the Middle East because they share a religious faith and are closer in lifestyle. The Dubai marketplace is ideal as a launch-pad for Ningxia merchandise," she suggests.
Tibet is another western region Wu is enthusiastic about. She took a delegation of about 100 Hong Kong residents, including pop icon Andy Lau, to Tibet in 1999 and staged a free concert to promote the snow-capped paradise.
Fourteen trips later, she is still tireless in "getting the world to know the real Tibet. It's not just the religious side, but every facet of it," she emphasizes, adding that people in Western countries tend to be so fixated on the Dalai Lama that they don't see the real or whole picture, such as progress in the autonomous region or its economic activity.
Tourism is the best way to facilitate better understanding. It does not affect the environment as manufacturing does, and it brings tangible benefits to the local people, she says. "That's why I want to import talent from Hawaii."
Wu cannot seem to stop thinking about matching capital or know-how with places that are most in need of them. Her next target is the rust belt of Northeast China. "I'm thinking of getting some Canadian companies there. There's a fit between the two places, geographically and industrially."
The reason she scans the international horizon for investment prospects is, "Hong Kong does not have this kind of know-how." But she does have an idea to "bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland."
"Hong Kong youths who are being trained for civil service should spend some time on the mainland. They should make field trips to the Northwest and take lessons in Beijing. Most of all, they should make a stopover at Nanjing, where the infamous 1842 Treaty was signed to cede Hong Kong, and ponder its significance. Only then can they feel that they are part of the Chinese family."