Will China Welcome Mat Get Pulled from Under Consummate Door Knocker?

Jeff Ji, president of U-Combination Technology, an IT service provider, is an entrepreneurial dynamo who wakes up most mornings thinking about how to improve US-China relations from his perch in Philadelphia. As retirement looms from companies he started, Ji frets that he’s running out of mornings just as the relationship he’s spent decades nourishing enters a dark period with no dawn in sight.

“I’m cautiously optimistic in general but it’s getting harder not to be pessimistic,” said the usually upbeat Ji, exhibiting a condition not uncommon among people we’ve interviewed for the 50 States, 50 Stories series. The relationship is in a tough spot.

“To find these partners, you have to knock on the right door and know the right people.”

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the day—in this case 2006—Ji started doing business in Shandong Province. The impetus was a visit to Philadelphia by the provincial lieutenant governor. Ji, who was born in China and came to the United States as a student, saw opportunity though he didn’t know for what. Bonding quickly with the lieutenant governor, he invited him for a tour of a nearby Harley-Davidson assembly plant. Later he arranged for Harley-Davidson senior executives to visit Shandong. Everyone took long rides on the hogs and had a great time.


Hogs in Hubei

Then Harley-Davidson contracted Ji’s tour company, Knighthawk Tours, to expand the company’s presence in the China market by showcasing the “Harley lifestyle”. They did this through US riding trips to China, and later Chinese riding trips to the United States. He and his partner in Knighthawk Tours started by creating “Ride to Confucius,” a bike tour to Shandong, the home province of the famous Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 BC. Later, riders from Shandong and multiple other provinces were invited to the United States to ride with American bikers in multiple 4,000-mile trips up and down the east coast. The trips continued until COVID-19 shut down travel between the two countries. These biker fests eventually led to an expansion of Harley-Davidson dealers in China.

But Ji wasn’t done. Soon the government of Shandong asked him, through his company U-Combination Technology, to build and maintain a tourism website and a social media presence as well as develop other marketing programs. It too was a success and his work for Shandong continues today.

“Having a local partner is actually a good thing,” Ji observed, “because increased nationalism tends to be muted.” He said his Chinese partners are friendly and love American products. “To find these partners, you have to knock on the right door and know the right people.”

Ji uses his matchmaking abilities to help fellow members of the Philadelphia World Trade Center, an important local player in the US-China trade ecosystem. He’s knocked on enough doors in China to have formidable calluses and is happy to share who he’s met and what he’s learned. “I help the members, especially smaller members, break barriers.”

The barriers have become more formidable and now feature a pandemic, which has sickened the tourism industry on which one of his consultancies depends. “It is very tough right now and China’s restrictive travel policies may not relax until the end of 2022 or even 2023. You can’t make much money on virtual travel.”

"China is not a block of iron. There are different people within the government, within society.”

He helps wherever he can such as assisting Pennsylvania State University students apply for visas to study in China. He knows people at the Chinese consulate. He remains keen on student exchanges but says travel constraints and souring bilateral relations now threaten this very important source of cultural understanding. “Chinese students who study here are changing China. When I go there, I constantly come across people who have studied in the United States, and it helps them understand what I want to accomplish and saves me time. For these former Chinese students, America is a dream place. If you want to do things, you have far less headaches.”


Take Confucius as directed

The big headache is the relationship itself, and Ji again is actively looking for analgesics. One way is to lobby the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation, including its two senators, one of whom has sponsored a bill that would require government scrutiny of US direct investment in China. “I’ve met with their staffers, and I think the delegation is of two minds about China trade.  I’m disappointed that more businesses aren’t pressing the politicians. Maybe it’s because some businesses are struggling while others are doing great.”

He says that the general attitude of Congress is that they've been the rule makers for decades and now they’re being challenged. What’s needed, he believes, is that the rules should be made together, no matter how difficult the process. “If we narrow down the issues and negotiate seriously, spend time to understand where China is coming from. China is not a block of iron. There are different people within the government, within society.”

For smaller US companies seeking to enter or expand in the China market, Ji counsels patience and realistic expectations. Find a good local China partner and network with support organizations in the United States like world trade centers and chambers of commerce. Government agencies can also be helpful, and Ji makes use of a Market Access Grant, a program run by the Small Business Administration that subsidizes travel and marketing costs for US exporters in foreign countries.

“China is Pennsylvania’s third largest goods export market; fourth for services, topped by education. Most US companies want to continue doing business with China. But it’s like a cold war now, and we don’t know how it ends.”