Massachusetts and Guangzhou, China Re-establish trade and cultural ties dating back 230 years

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by Hunter Richard

In August, the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment (MOITI) led a delegation of economic development and cultural leaders from Massachusetts to Guangzhou, China to participate in a celebration and business forum commemorating the 230th Anniversary of the Sailing of the Empress of China. Sponsored by Oceanwide Consulting and the China Zhigong Party, the mission afforded an opportunity to promote Massachusetts as a destination for foreign investment, tour the region’s special development and biotech zones, and strengthen sister-state relations between Massachusetts and Guangdong.

Participants included Richard Elam, Executive Director of MOITI, Hunter Richard, Manager of Business Development at MOITI; John Barros, Chief of Economic Development for the City of Boston; Thomas Paine, Vice President of Ager Group Inc. and an Overseer of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Robert Pierce Forbes, a trustee of the Forbes House Museum in Milton and a fifth-generation descendant of China trade Captain Robert Bennet Forbes; and Sherry Dong, President of the Chinese Historical Society of New England.

Massachusetts played an important role in Guangzhou’s rise as a major destination for American merchants following the Revolutionary War. On February 22, 1784, the Boston-built Empress of China departed New York and began a 188 day voyage around the world carrying 10,000 pounds of Virginia-grown Ginseng root, Spanish silver dollars, and a 42-man crew. The ship arrived in Guangzhou on August 28, 1784 and established trade and diplomatic relations between the Chinese Empire and the newly formed United States. New England merchants from the ports of Boston, Salem, and others acquired large fortunes from the China trade that flourished at the turn of the 19th century. Today, that fascinating story is highlighted by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Forbes House Museum in Milton.

During the three-day mission, the delegation attended the opening of a new exhibit at the Whampoa Old Fort highlighting the Empress of China and its role in building trade and diplomatic relationship between Guangzhou and the United States. The delegation also toured several historical sites of the city, the Zhujiang New Town development zone, and Guangzhou’s biotech island. After visiting several local companies, members of the delegation discussed the benefits of doing business in Massachusetts in a forum that brought together over 100 local business leaders and investors. Most notable, John Barros and the Mayor of Guangzhou, Chen Jianhua, signed an agreement to boost business and cultural ties between the two cities. MOITI also presented a proclamation signed by the Massachusetts Legislature designating August 28th, 2014 as “Guangzhou, Guangdong – Boston, Massachusetts Day.”

Guangzhou is China’s third largest city and is home to over 12 million residents. Located in the Pearl River Delta west of Hong Kong, Guangzhou is a major manufacturing hub that has embraced an ambitious plan to redevelop wide sections of the city, modernize infrastructure, and transition to an advanced economy based on services, biotech, and innovation. The port has played an important role in the China trade, serving as the port of entry for foreign commerce and diplomacy from the 1700’s through World War II. Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, experienced significant economic growth and a rise of manufacturing of goods for export. In 1983, Governor Michael Dukakis and Governor Liang Lingguang of Guangdong established sister state relations. In an effort to strengthen these ties, MOITI will soon welcome a reverse delegation of business and political leaders from Guangdong in early 2015.