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October 31, 2007

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Yesterday, we were all geared up to mingle with the 55 Chinese firms registered at the America & China Small and Medium Sized Business Conference in Rockville—which sounded like a great chance for small businesses looking to crack the China market.  Apparently U.S. embassy officials in China didn’t see the appeal:  According to conference organizers, they withheld visas to all but three of the Chinese guests. 

As the conference approached, America & China International Foundation executive director Jasmine Zhou was making 4 a.m. calls to the U.S. embassy in hopes of breaking the visa impasse.  She and Clay Hickson, Chairman of the Maryland-China Business Council, Inc., say visa decisions often seem arbitrary.

Embassy officials told Jasmine that her Chinese visitors hadn’t shown a legitimate business reason for their trip—a frustrating response when you’re holding a conference for the purpose of expanding commerce.  “They’re making it very difficult for the Chinese to spend money here,” says Jasmine, who has encountered visa issues with other events, though never on this scale.  The ACIF enlisted the Maryland Governor’s office and Department of Economic Development, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen—who made calls and wrote letters supporting the effort to get small Chinese businesses to the Rockville forum.  The visa application process, intended to prevent temporary visits from becoming permanent immigration, requires applicants to give information about their China businesses, assets and family situations.  Jasmine maintains that invitees all provided adequate documentation. A particularly disappointing absence was Liu Zhihua, a prominent female entrepreneur in China, who’d been scheduled to give a keynote speech.  Jasmine did some on-the-fly adjustments and tailored conference programming more exclusively towards the U.S. businesses in attendance. 

Xugeng Zhou founded his American & China International Group Corp. (parent of the host foundation) 14 years ago, with the goal of building cultural and business bridges between the countries.  Xugeng splits his time between Beijing and D.C., and got his start in our favorite field, business news.  (Who says you couldn’t network without those China businesses?  Watch out for Bisnow Beijing, coming soon.  Well, maybe in a few years.)  Above, Xugeng is flanked by his assistant Aileen Zhang and Opus8 VP Sha Wang, who is looking to invest in venture-stage business services companies (think CRM) in China.  She travels to China a few times a year—staying a month at a time—and has already put some Opus funds into China Springboard, a domain hosting company. 

Seen from the back, Sha holds her audience rapt in a networking exercise on storytelling.  She says that one of the best conference presentations was given by her own boss, Tien Wong of Opus8, on how to choose a China partner.  (She swears that isn’t her bias talking, but we suspect Sha is bucking for a raise.)    

Seems like everyone’s getting in on the China act these days, but lawyer Shawn McBride of the Thalen firm (which has 15 D.C. attorneys doing China-related work) says there’s still a lot of mystery.  “It’s like the wild west out there,” he says of the market for legal services.

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