by John Myers, News10

Gov. Jerry Brown packed his bag last weekend for his first trade mission since taking office in 2011, an eight-day visit to China designed to drum up business and sell the California brand.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A delegation of 100 state officials and top business executives will be traveling with the governor. The group begins in Beijing and makes its way to Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen before heading home on April 17.

It’s been a decade since California closed its overseas trade offices, amid criticism that they were too costly to the state and didn’t really produce noticeable economic benefit. Brown will open a new state office in Shanghai on April 12, which will be privately underwritten by the nonprofit Bay Area Council.

(The same organization is organizing and helping to raise money for the trade mission, which is not being financed by taxpayer dollars; News10 and KQED are paying their own way to travel with Brown.)

So what can you expect from the trade mission? Here are five things to watch for, as we head across the Pacific toward the land known as the Middle Kingdom:

What Deals Does Brown Come Home With? It’s hard not to pick this as the biggest question of all about the trip. The governor’s agenda, once he lands in Beijing on April 9, is a whirlwind of meetings with Chinese government officials, entrepreneurs and top business officials. Staffers say Brown will be signing formal agreements with Chinese government officials, which could include new economic partnerships and proposals on climate change issues. The governor’s agenda also includes a number of private industry gatherings, including events designed to connect California and Chinese businesses in hopes of sealing new deals.

Remember that Brown’s real goal is boosting California’s economy — which boosts taxes and services. As such, the important news might be less what he flies home with, but rather what deals are stowed away in the luggage of business leaders in the delegation.

A Preference for Pondering, Not Pomp. Jerry Brown is either the perfect governor for this trip … or one of the most ill-suited. Making the case for the former is the fact that Brown revels in deep discussion and thought, an attribute his China hosts are likely to enjoy. The governor is also a man who constantly talks of the long term in state and world events these days, also a viewpoint experts say is shared by the Chinese people.

On the other hand, trade missions are unavoidably full of formality — from where you sit to the toast you make at dinner. Brown is decidedly informal in the way he carries himself, and told reporters on Thursday that he’s not that excited about the formal dinner banquets he’ll be expected to lead in the days to come. It’s also worth noting that we’ll watch how Brown is received in comparison to his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose larger-than-life movie persona outshone the rest of the agenda on a trade trip to China in 2005. It’s safe to assume that Brown will not be recognized walking the streets.

The Climate Challenge. The one consistent item across the governor’s agenda is a focus on climate change. Brown is a passionate advocate for programs that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and he’s been a staunch defender of California’s landmark 2006 law that calls for a big rollback in those emissions. He’s traveling to a country with an enormous problem when it comes to greenhouse gases. China is the single largest emitter in the world.

Experts say that’s largely because China relies heavily on coal-fired electricity plants, and because there are fewer restrictions on auto tailpipe emissions than in the United States. While Chinese officials have made major investments in combating climate change the past few years, Brown will no doubt urge them to do more.

California’s bold effort, after all, doesn’t do much for the global problem if China continues at its current pace. Photos of Beijing residents in particular wearing air masks on heavily smogged-in days only reinforce the tone and seriousness of the climate change events. It’s also worth pointing out the economic importance of the issue: California is a world leader in green energy business, and China might be the perfect customer.

Railway Dreams. It might not be the equivalent of a kid who loves space stories finally seeing a real rocket ship, but Jerry Brown’s two years of praising high-speed rail finally meet reality on April 11, when he boards the Jinghu High-Speed Railway for the 800-mile trip between Beijing and Shanghai. The governor, and probably most of the delegation, have never ridden a high-speed train, and his impression will be worth watching. The system took 2½ years to build (California should be so lucky), and runs trains ranging between 155 and 200 mph. And here’s a particularly interesting question: California’s project needs tens of billions of dollars more to ever be fully built. With Congress basically telling state officials no, might the governor find some deep-pocketed Chinese investors willing to climb aboard?

Expect the Unexpected. The logistics of moving 100 people, and a governor, through five cities and a couple of dozen big events are daunting. Brown’s trip, for the media who are attending, has been an ever-changing beast through the planning stage. Even on Friday, we received word of some big changes in the agenda.

So, what unexpected news pops up? And how does Brown, who is well known for doing what he wants to do and saying what he wants to say (even when staffers would rather he didn’t), handle the ebb and flow? The governor turned 75 on Sunday, just before heading out. But chances are he’ll handle the 15-hour time difference, and resulting jet lag, better than I will.

Click play below to hear Myers discuss the governor’s China trip with Los Angeles Times reporter Anthony York.

  • Rob Anderson

    Why would China want to invest in the state’s high-speed rail boondoggle? Unless the state is going to give Chinese contractors some contracts to build the system—and neither the feds nor our state government has that money—there’s no profit to be had.

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