By STEVEN NALLEY
Donald Tong has never been to Mississippi before this week, but he has grown to like the state.
Tong, Hong Kong’s commissioner for economic and trade affairs with America, spent Wednesday meeting with Gov. Phil Bryant and officials from the Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi State University. On Thursday, he said, he also met with several Golden Triangle area business representatives, including Golden Triangle Development Link CEO Joe Max Higgins.
“I think people here are very warm,” Tong said. “They are very receptive to our messages. I could see a strong desire (for Mississippi and China) to work closer together.”
Both Tong and SoZo Group CEO Ray Cheng said Thursday that prospects for a growing economic partnership between China and Mississippi are strong in light of their visit to the state this week.
The SoZo Group, a Hong Kong-based consulting firm, previously played a key role in the establishment of the Alabama-China Partnership, and Cheng said the door is open for Mississippi to follow Alabama’s precedent.
“As I told the governor, we’re committed to starting something similar right away,” Cheng said. “The fact that we’re here represents that. It’s unusual to find ... (so many things) we call ‘viable assets’ in one place — the place, the people, the community, the research park and the momentum of attracting international companies.”
During the visit, Tong said he, Cheng and their delegation were impressed with the strength of Mississippi’s labor force and the state’s low tax rate, among other economic advantages. He said he was also impressed with MSU’s research, particularly in manufacturing, and he was grateful to have a productive discussion with Gov. Bryant.
“I believe there is a good possibility the governor will be able to find time to visit our part of the world,” Tong said. “I think one important role of Hong Kong is to serve as a two-way gateway for mainland China and (other countries). We serve as a good platform for Mississippi representatives (to visit Chinese company leaders). We have around 700 mainland (Chinese) companies in Hong Kong ... (and) they are all heavyweights in their own rights. When (Mississippi representatives) visit, I think they will be able to achieve a lot in meeting face-to-face with (mainland Chinese) business leaders that work in Hong Kong.”
Cheng said the timetable for a Mississippi analogue to the Alabama-China Partnership is not set in stone yet because many other entities are also approaching the SoZo Group about partnerships of their own. The SoZo Group will also specialize its approach based on Mississippi’s needs, he said, and that means Mississippi will not necessarily see the large business symposiums the Alabama-China Partnership has hosted.
“We will look for the most effective way to find potential candidates for Starkville ... (and) the best, most successful way to bring companies to Mississippi,” Cheng said. “For example, June 11 in New York, Hong Kong is putting on a mega-event where hundreds of companies are going to be ... and there will be a business-matching exercise. SoZo will bring a Southeast delegation to this event.”
Tong said he will evaluate the data gathered from his brief Mississippi visit more closely when he returns to Hong Kong, so it is too early to draw concrete conclusions about the types of jobs that might come from China to Mississippi. When thinking about such business decisions, he said it is important to not only think about immediate impact but also the future, including spin-offs and future research developments.
“(During) our visit to some of the MSU research facilities, not all of the ideas had reached the commercialization stage,” Tong said, “but there are some very interesting ideas we believe might be of use to our government partners or even the business sector, particularly in areas like energy.”