By Lucy Hornby
BEIJING (Reuters) - Businessmen in sober suits leapt to their feet, jostling with cameras and mobile phones to snap a quick shot as the new U.S. ambassador to China strode to the podium at a hotel ballroom in Jinan, in coastal Shandong province.
Nine hours later, after a speech on energy cooperation, signing ceremonies for deals of a few million dollars each, and dinner with the governor, he was back on the train to Beijing.
This is how Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing and a local celebrity, is trying to raise U.S. sales in China -- deal by deal, ballroom by hotel ballroom, in cities most Americans have never heard of.
While every U.S. ambassador has put in a plug for American goods and services, Locke takes the effort to a new level. The former commerce secretary has hit the pavement in six provincial cities to try to narrow the trade deficit that gives his boss, President Barack Obama, political heartburn.
"Certainly these trips can help publicize the great products and services made in America that could help meet the needs of China but at the same time create jobs in America," Locke told Reuters as the train sped through fields of winter wheat.
"You may not get immediate sales, or the amount of sales from these initial transactions might be small. But really you need to track the growth of these sales, these exports by these American companies over the next several years."
The effort is needed, say U.S. businesses, which often complain about China's opaque markets and the difficulty of selling to the Chinese government and state-owned businesses.
"I'm not aware that previous ambassadors have actually led trade missions organized in the U.S. around China," said Christian Murck, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "It reflects a personal commitment."
American exports to China rose by nearly a third to $91.9 billion in 2010, reversing a fall in sales the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. But they are still dwarfed by Chinese exports to the United States of $365 billion.
FROM COFFEE TO CHEMICALS
Even before he arrived in China, Locke made a splash. A photo of him wearing a backpack and buying a coffee in the airport Starbucks drew enthusiastic online comments from Chinese used to seeing their own officials flanked by guards and aides.
Locke, who does not speak Mandarin, has turned his celebrity to promoting everything from machines to energy-saving lights.
The wares displayed at folding tables under the Jinan Hotel's crystal chandeliers were nothing a consumer could touch. While American stores are filled with goods made in China, the companies accompanying Locke to Jinan included specialty chemicals and equipment makers, with products designed to upgrade China's inefficient and polluting energy sector.
Small firms in particular find it hard to meet the right person or figure out when tenders are issued, let alone sell products that are often pricier than the Chinese competitor.
But Locke retains the salesman's optimism. "Everyone that has exported to China reports that what may have started off small builds over time, such that we've seen phenomenal increases in exports from the United States to China," he said.
Trade missions like these are very much Chinese affairs, with the local representatives of the American firms greeting clients effusively in Mandarin. The signing ceremony, as always, was replete with hostesses in red, a champagne toast and piped music on endless repeat.
The buffet lunch featured dishes like kelp with garlic, lotus root with ginger and pork lung in spicy sauce.
Locke's presence meant the Shandong governor was there, and the chance for a meal with both drew many of the hard-to-reach bosses of state-owned companies.
"Lots of our customers are refineries in Shandong, and it's hard to meet them. Heads of state-owned enterprises are hard to access," said X.D. Hu, China managing director for specialty chemicals maker Albemarle Corp.
Two of his major clients showed up after the Shandong government sent out invitations for the event.
"They care less about the U.S. ambassador, but the chance to meet the Shandong governor is very exciting for them."
Shandong, one of China's largest provinces in terms of both population and economy, is famously business-oriented. But with its private factories hit hard by the global slowdown, more sales growth has to come from the state-owned sector.
The Jinan trip is the first of five trade missions, each focused on a specific industry, that Locke has pledged to lead.
On the train back to Beijing, embassy staffers were already planning how to make the next one bigger and better.
"Too often U.S. ambassadors get stuck in the geopolitics, things like nuclear negotiations," said James McGregor, senior consultant for APCO Worldwide in Beijing.
"But they should be out promoting American business. That's what the Europeans and Japanese do."
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan and Michael Martina; Editing by Don Durfee and Ron Popeski)