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Delegation from Wuhan coming here to celebrate two decades of friendship

Our 'relatives' from China stop in for a visit

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh's Chinese sister city is sending a high-powered group of visitors here this week to celebrate two decades of special friendship.

The mayor of Wuhan, China, and a dozen other officials arrive tonight to invigorate a long-standing relationship that aims for big benefits there and here -- especially for business.

"We believe that in two or three years there's going to be a burst of things happening," says Sha Zhao, who's helping coordinate the visit through the Urban Development Authority of Pittsburgh.

Actually, there's going to be a burst of things happening in Pittsburgh over the next few days and throughout this 20th anniversary year, including a cross-cultural riverside festival in the fall featuring Pittsburgh's first dragon boat race.

At 9:30 tomorrow morning on the 31st floor of the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown, Mayor Tom Murphy is to welcome Mayor Zhou Ji and other representatives of Wuhan government and business. The visitors will pitch commercial opportunities in the Wuhan region and be wooed, in turn, by Pittsburgh-area businesses..

Some of the Chinese will hold private talks with specific companies, such as NeuralWare and CNG Services International Inc. Others will travel to Oakland to tour the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and discuss partnership possibilities. Back Downtown later, people from Wuhan and Pittsburgh will talk about setting up a joint environmental center. Then they'll relax at a reception and dinner at the Duquesne Club.

Thursday, the Chinese delegation again will split up for more meetings and tours, including visits to H.J. Heinz Co., before flying back to Los Angeles, where they'll finish their U.S. excursion at an optical fiber communications conference.

Zhao, a Wuhan native who married a Pittsburgher and moved here three years ago, doesn't expect many contracts to be signed over the next couple of days, but she does think many of the more than 200 Pittsburgh businesses expressing an interest in joint ventures will find something of interest to discuss with their counterparts from Wuhan.

A few such ventures already exist. In 1999, Cranberry window manufacturer TRACO joined with a Chinese curtain wall manufacturer to form Wuhan-TRACO Lingyun Energy Saving Windows and Doors Co. Ltd.

"Pittsburgh's been a little slow in coming around to the idea of globalization," said Linda Campbell, manager of the URA's new International Division. But that's changing, she says, especially when it comes to doing business in China. China recently became a member of the World Trade Organization, which forces it to open more industries to international competition and abide by WTO rules.

Among other local companies pumped to do business in China is Carnegie-based NeuralWare, which specializes in "intelligent software." President and CEO Jack Copper says the company is on the verge of finalizing a "significant" licensing agreement with a Wuhan Integrated Steel. Co. subsidiary -- something that wouldn't have happened without the framework set up by the URA and the Wuhan Foreign Affairs Office. He expects this deal to be finalized in April and says, "We would expect some other relationships will happen."

Such fruits are ripening thanks to seeds planted in 1982 by the Pittsburgh-Wuhan Friendship Committee, the group that helped bring the cities together. The late Richard Caliguiri was the first Pittsburgh mayor to travel to Wuhan, and he signed the sister-city agreement with Mayor Li Zhi on Sept. 17, 1982. Sophie Masloff also went there (in 1992), as did Murphy (in 1998).

URA Executive Director Mulugetta Birru led the most recent trade mission to Wuhan in October, but few businesses participated in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Murphy or Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey will head back to Wuhan in the fall.

Zhao says Wuhan's new mayor (he was appointed in Dec. 2001) isn't a stereotypical Chinese politician; he earned his mechanical engineering Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1984. "He's very cool," she says. "He wants to really push the relationship."

Over two decades, the Wuhan-Pittsburgh sister-city relationship, now shepherded by the URA, has bloomed spin-offs. Schools in the two regions exchange students and educators, for instance.

But the focus at both ends remains serious business. Last month, Wuhan's East Lake High Tech Zone sent Liqun Huang to the URA to improve the two cities' communication and cooperation. He'll be here for six months.

Still, it's not all-work-and-no-play.

Zhao, an International Division intern, is working with the local Chinese community to present the first Riverside Cultural Festival on Sept. 21 on Washington's Landing. In addition to Chinese food (thanks to the 110-member Pittsburgh Chinese Restaurant Association), the festival will introduce to the three rivers the splashy tradition of dragon boat racing.

The ornate canoe-like craft are 44 feet long, with a dragon head at one end and a dragon tail at the other, and are propelled by up to 22 people who furiously paddle to the beating of a drum. Zhao says the URA just ordered, with about $20,000 in donated funds, two red and gold boats from Toronto. Local companies will be invited to sponsor teams, which will begin practicing this spring at the Three Rivers Rowing Association and the Steel City Rowing Club.

Other upcoming fun is to include an exhibition of modern and traditional Chinese folk art, which Zhao says will be displayed in the City-County Building and other locations starting next month.

Several community groups and individuals are working on the year's events, which Zhao says are helping pull together the local Chinese community. It includes at least 70 people -- mostly professionals -- from the Wuhan region. They're forming an association named after the nickname Wuhan people have earned for being so smart: The Bird with Nine Heads Association.

She's also producing a book about the 20-year relationship between the two cities, which she says could be twins. "They look exactly alike," she says. Not only is Wuhan located on a triangular confluence (of the Hanshui and the Yangtze rivers), but it also has a steely industrial past -- one that it hasn't yet cleaned up as successfully as Pittsburgh.

Of course, there are great differences as well. Wuhan's population is more than 7.3 million, and its human history goes back thousands of years. Zhao laughs and says that rather than a sister, Wuhan could be Pittsburgh's "great, great, great grandmother."

For more information about this week's meetings or other events, call the URA at (412) 255-6622.

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