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BEIJING — Bian Ai Jie lives in a one-room apartment she shares with a friend on the 13th floor of a 28-story building in this city of 20 million.
On the back of the sofa is her copy, in Chinese, of the recent biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. It's partly covered by the empty box from her roommate's new iPhone, a U.S.-created and Chinese-made luxury that Ai Jie covets.
But right now the 23-year-old, who likes to be called Amily, pays a third of her salary for the tiny room that lacks its own bathroom or kitchen. She moved here a year ago, right after college, from a town on the North Korean border. At her city advertising job, she helps companies develop logos and other strategies for promoting their brand names.
Amily is part of the new face of China — a wave of optimistic, young, upwardly mobile consumers who are crowding into cities and open to new ideas, even as they wrestle with economic and social stumbling blocks.
Similarly, China offers both challenges and opportunities for Nebraska businesses that want to expand their efforts to tap China's 1.3 billion people, including its growing middle class.
China's middle class just emerged in the past 15 to 20 years and now makes up about 25 percent of the population, 50 percent of the urban population, according to Helen Wang, a consultant and author of “The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World's Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You.” It's an estimated 300 million people — almost the size of the total U.S. population.
“It would be foolish to leave this huge market alone,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said during a recent interview.
Today, Heineman arrives in Beijing to lead a trade mission aimed at boosting the state's exports and attracting Chinese investment in the Cornhusker State. Delegates will meet with Chinese government officials and business leaders in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai.
The trip is focused on helping Nebraska businesses — including smaller companies such as a Roca, Neb., pipe organ manufacturer or a Laurel, Neb., company that makes an ethanol-based product that can be used to make “greener” plastic — export their products to China.
The trade mission also is expected to highlight some existing — and growing — Nebraska business activity in China from pioneers such as Columbus-based Behlen Manufacturing Co. and Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises to academic connections involving the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
The weeklong mission is sure to highlight how far China has moved in its transformation from a low-wage manufacturing powerhouse into a modern, consumer-driven economy and how much Nebraska already is connected to China's vast, fast-growing economy.
In all the obvious ways, Nebraska can seem far removed from this city of ancient imperial buildings and glittering contemporary high-rises.
When it's dinnertime in Beijing, halfway around the world, Omahans are just waking up. As the third-most-populous city in China, Beijing has more than 10 times as many people as the entire state of Nebraska. And dense smog hangs over the city, obscuring distant buildings. You can go days without seeing the sun.
But those differences don't prevent Nebraska's connections with either Beijing or China overall. And they go much beyond the “Made in China” labels that jam the shelves of Target and Walmart stores across the Midlands.
For example, Nebraskans are profiting from the steel poles that help light China's brand-new highways amid an infrastructure construction boom.
Nebraskans are starting to make money by helping Chinese families care for a growing elderly population.
Nebraskans are at work in Beatrice, assembling lawn mowers for a Chinese company.
And Nebraska universities are drawing Chinese students — and their out-of-state tuition payments — to the state's campuses, boosting both enrollment and finances.
All told, Nebraska shipped more than $380 million in merchandise (manufactured and agricultural goods) to China last year, twice as much as it did just four years earlier. China is Nebraska's fourth-largest export destination.
That means Nebraskans are finding ways to carve out a portion of a Chinese economy that has increased over the past three decades by 9 percent a year.
“Our economies are totally intertwined these days,” said former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., who also headed the Asia Foundation until recently.
To be sure, a China connection can cut both ways.
No one knows that better than the hundreds of workers in DeWitt, Neb., who lost their jobs in 2008 after the parent company of the local Vise-Grip factory decided that it could boost profits by shifting production to China.
There's no question that such “offshoring” has caused painful economic dislocation at home — even as it provided China with amazing growth. China now is the world's second-largest economy and largest manufacturer, although its economy still is about half the size of the United States' economy.
The economic boom has transformed China, said Andrew Gately, commercial officer for the federal government's Export Assistance Center.
Not long ago, he said, the streets of China's biggest cities were filled with bicycles and lined with low-slung buildings. Now cars dominate the streets, and skylines resemble “an architect's dreamland,” he said.
That growth has come as China drew millions of workers out of rural areas into the country's cities. Urbanization went hand in hand with cheap labor that has allowed China to produce America's iPhones and plastic dishes and bedsheets and swim goggles.
Meanwhile, the money flowing back from all those manufactured exports has made many Chinese workers better off.
Not all workers have shared equally in the county's affluence, which has created problems.
Tao Wu, senior research director for Gallup's China operation, said China is wrestling with income disparities between its rich and poor citizens and between urban and rural residents. Meanwhile, he said, surveys suggest that average people in China don't feel that their own well-being has gone up to match the national progress.
Such feelings could lead to social discontent in the future, Wu said.
Still, others say China's growth has made the country a stronger market for U.S.-made products, and Nebraska businesses and boosters are trying to take advantage of it.
“You've got a lot of these people moving into the middle class. Their buying power is increased,” said Joe Chapuran, international development manager for Nebraska's Department of Economic Development.
Chapuran, who organized the current trade mission, said Nebraska companies make products that Chinese consumers may want to buy now that they have more disposable income: home security systems, movie popcorn, “greener” plastics made with ethanol byproducts instead of petroleum.
Rising demand for energy in China has led to more coal production, which in turn offers the possibility of sales by a Nebraska business that makes equipment used in coal mines, Chapuran said.
Such opportunities could be undercut by many factors, such as a slowdown in China's economic growth and the difficulties involved with international trade.
But as wage rates continue to rise in China, many experts say it's inevitable that China will lose some of the economic advantage that makes its products cheaper, and the nation's consumption will go up.
That opens the door for U.S. businesses, depending on the products or services they have to offer.
“As the labor force ages, it gets more expensive,” said Carl Haub, senior demographer for the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. “China's demographic dividend is disappearing.”
China also is poised to invest much more in U.S. businesses, said Peter Golder, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. This week's trade mission could help pave the way for Chinese investment in Nebraska, officials hope.
Just last week, a research report predicted that direct Chinese investment in the United States would hit record levels in 2012.
Some of those economic trends and forces are reflected in the life of Amily, the 23-year-old who moved to Beijing searching for a better and more interesting life.
She found it at Bang, an advertising company with about 200 employees in its Beijing office. She and her mostly 20-something co-workers are lined up in rows of small cubicles with low walls that encourage collaboration.
The cover of the company's oversize brochure makes a tongue-in-cheek break with China's past. In large Chinese characters, it reworks a famous slogan from the late Communist leader Mao Zedong.
Mao said: “Serve the people.”
Bang says: “Serve the brand.”
Amily studied advertising in college and was happy to find a job in her field after college. Last week she was working on a project for a supermarket.
She has created her own personal brand as well, adopting the English name Amily because she admired the free-spirited character in the movie “Amélie.”
She enjoys living her childhood dream of being in the big city, even though she can afford little space. She and her roommate share a kitchen with three other apartments, and a single bathroom with two other apartments.
She likes to dance to Latin music or sing at karaoke clubs, known as KTV. She watches American sitcoms, telling a Nebraska visitor that she knew about Omaha because she had looked up the hometown of the character Penny on “The Big Bang Theory.”
Someday, perhaps, she sees herself as her own boss, owning a bar or coffee shop, or traveling to other countries, or both.
“I love to embrace fresh things,” she said. “I want to experience life as much as I can.”
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