By Doug Barry
The Greater Cleveland Chinese Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) serves as a bridge between mainland Chinese who want to invest in the United States and Americans looking for business opportunities in China. The Trump-era trade war and the spread of COVID-19 brought big challenges to the organization. But the Chamber has become more important than ever in these strong headwinds, as it helps both sides learn more about each other.
Su He, the current executive director, came to the United States as an international student in 2008. She attended law school, overcame the language barrier, passed the bar exam, and became an attorney in the United States. Now she has a husband and two children, practices law full-time, teaches part-time at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and leads the Chamber during a time of budget and membership challenges.
“I’ve been here 14 years,” she recalls. “That is a long time, because I only lived in my hometown of Beijing for 15 years, and in just two more years Cleveland will be my hometown longer than any other.”
Why Cleveland? She received an offer from Case Western University to attend law school. After moving to Cleveland, she liked it a lot, with weather like Beijing. She appreciated the city’s cultural diversity. “Clevelanders are kind to foreigners, and they have been kind to me and my family,” she noted.
Following graduation, she worked at a law firm, but when she had kids, she started her own firm which eventually merged with a top-ranked national law firm. She is a business immigration attorney and since 2017, she has volunteered her time to help the Chinese Chamber as executive director.
“When Chinese companies come to the region, we can help them understand the legal and tax requirements, as well as the business culture. We also help American companies learn more about China. The Chamber can help both sides build trust and then do business. We bridge the gaps in understanding.” Are there companies eager to have such gaps filled? Yes, but it is very challenging because there are so many differences between the two countries’ legal systems, cultures, languages, and mindsets.
Navigating the gaps
One gap is the decline in Chinese students attending university in the area. As an adjunct law professor, she observed that during the first two years of the pandemic, many Chinese students applied to come to the United States but couldn’t because of travel restrictions. “But starting in 2021-22, the United States and China have really started advertising toward each other that the other country is not good. Parents who have never been to the United States might be worried. ‘Oh, there are so many shootings in the United States. Should I let my child go there?’” Another problem, she said, has been Chinese restrictions on travel and the lack of flights, which along with tuition costs amid an economic slowdown, made everything more expensive for Chinese parents. Now that the Chinese government has lifted many COVID-19 restrictions, she expects Chinese student enrollment in the United States will start to bounce back.
Another problem is the difficulty of staying in the United States. Students can obtain a visa that allows them to stay for one year after graduation if they can find an internship within 90 days of getting their diploma. If not, they have to leave. “Before COVID-19 they could network more easily; now networking is limited and there are fewer internship opportunities. If they don’t have the opportunity to get an internship, they may reconsider spending so much money on a US education in the first place.”
“Before the pandemic, there was a lot of need for delegations and investment. But that has decreased. It is not just because of the pandemic."
She said 2022-23 applications from China remained down, but students from other countries are increasing. She thinks the number of Chinese students could increase again, because the need is still there, and other English-speaking countries can’t absorb all the Chinese students who want to study abroad. “The issues of personal safety and US-China tensions issues will still be there. But for law students, I encourage them to come despite those issues, because they will understand the US system better and can take that knowledge back to China to help Chinese companies develop the global market.”
“The image of China in the United States is not encouraging, with the media coverage focusing on China as a threat, adding companies to the Entity List, and prosecuting Chinese professors.” She hopes that the media coverage of China can be more neutral and objective, so that the public can have a more rational view of the relationship between the two countries.
Has she suffered any discrimination? Not long ago, she bought ice cream, and someone said she cut the line even though she didn’t. She had never seen someone so angry without listening to the explanation. "It made me wonder whether it’s because I have an Asian face.”
Educating the public
The Greater Cleveland Chinese Chamber of Commerce has several types of members: Chinese-owned local businesses; Chinese companies with a US office; US companies with a Chinese partner; and local professionals, individuals, students, and professors. Membership was down from pre-pandemic levels because of the move to online events, but it is slowly coming back because more people are starting to recognize the value that the Chinese Chamber provides, not only those in the Chinese community but also those from other local city chambers and international organizations, according to Su.
“Before the pandemic, there was a lot of need for delegations and investment. But that has decreased. It is not just because of the pandemic. It is also the policies, including immigration policies, that are making it more difficult to develop the US market. Americans are also wondering if they can go to China anymore, because China visas were suspended during COVID-19. There are a lot of political issues that are very challenging, but there is still interest.”
“Beyond national security concerns, both countries need to understand that business still needs to happen, and they need to be clear about the areas where we can work together."
Su wants to do more to educate the public about the importance of the US-China trade relationship. “I didn’t realize the importance of my role until a few years ago when I organized a delegation to China for hospital, university, and city officials. When we went on the high-speed train, the US delegation members thought it was amazing. They saw a very different China than what they read about in the newspapers. They were amazed at the development, and the kindness and hospitality of the Chinese people. I was also in a bit of cultural shock because I hadn’t been in China for many years and had missed, among other things, the mass use of mobile payments. All I have to bring is my phone, not even a key.”
When the Chamber celebrates Chinese New Year online, Su creates a short video of what Chinese cities look like today so people in Cleveland can see how things are changing, how advanced many places in China have become. While the outward similarities are obvious, there are still differences in the way business is done.
“The Chinese do business differently, so be aware of that, even if things look similar. For example, some Chinese come to me and say, 'Can we sign this memorandum of understanding (MOU) with this US organization?’ This is how the Chinese do it, where they sign a MOU as a relationship-building measure before they even do business together. In the United States, you don't sign anything until you have a relationship. The MOU is like a promotional tool for the Chinese company; it's not exclusive, but they see it as a first step.”
Su sees a large and growing gap in the bilateral relationship. “There is a lot of uncertainty in China right now. Before, there was a dramatic change on the US side, where Americans were more skeptical about doing business with China. But now there is a dramatic change on the Chinese side, with people becoming more skeptical of the United States. Now the gap is so wide and many people say it is not going back to the way it was. At what level can we cooperate and at what level won’t we? I don’t know.”
On the other side, because of the increased scrutiny of foreign investment in the United States, many Chinese companies now think it is too complicated to invest here.
“Beyond national security concerns, both countries need to understand that business still needs to happen, and they need to be clear about the areas where we can work together. That will make both countries more secure and prosperous.”