Dalian, China, a coastal city not far from the North Korean border, has created an unlikely alliance with a small university college thousands of miles away in upstate New York.
The connection between Dalian and the State University of New York was born out of the Chinese city's quest to be world-class and high-tech. In China, cities are competing with one another for talent, and that's pushing smaller cities to seek help from the U.S.
For years, Dalian was known for older industries like shipbuilding and for its close ties to Japan, which is less than three hours away by air. Now, the city is trying to figure out where its future lies.
New York Connection
Earlier this year, a delegation from the city traveled to Manhattan to meet with Denis Simon of SUNY. Simon told the delegation that the city needed to burnish its reputation before major international businesses would consider locating there.
The Chinese delegation listened carefully to Simon because they know he is on their side. Simon has made dozens of trips to Dalian and other Chinese cities since 1981, providing business and executive training. His decades-old link to Dalian has earned Simon the title of science and technology adviser to the city.
Simon's connection to Dalian is a perfect example of the role of guanxi, an untranslatable Chinese word for those all-important personal connections. It can take a lifetime to develop those connections in China.
"I don't get paid a penny for the work that I do with Dalian," Simon says. "This is very much an endeavor from my perspective of learning more deeply how the Chinese system works."
Chinese bureaucrats can be suspicious of outsiders. But just by mentioning Simon's name, doors fly open. Leaders of Dalian will then bend over backward to show off the business incubators they've developed to foster new companies. Thanks to his training junkets, his name clearly carries cache in Dalian.
Simon's efforts have emboldened this midsized seaport to think big and turn its face toward the English-speaking world.
So why should an entrepreneur start a business in Dalian rather than Beijing or Shanghai?
Liu Xiao Ying, director general of the Science and Technology Bureau, touts the city's beautiful scenery, the moderate weather, and the 22 universities and colleges in and around Dalian.
In a country known for polluted megacities, Dalian is a breath of fresh air. It has a San Francisco feel — with hills in the backdrop, a dramatic seascape and great seafood.
Madame Liu, as she is known, can't take credit for the weather, but she and her colleagues are trying to beef up the quality of the universities. To do that, they are depending on their old friend Simon, who has suggested they work with the SUNY campus in tiny Morrisville, N.Y.
What is it about the SUNY campus that might help Dalian? Cars.
When it comes to cars, Dalian has a lot to learn. Take the Automotive School at Dalian's University of Technology.
For a huge university, this auto program is tiny: There's room for only a couple of cars in its small garage. And the curriculum isn't well-developed either. Ping Hu, who teaches at the school, concedes it doesn't have the equipment or expertise Chinese drivers will need for their new, computerized vehicles.
He says the growing number of Chinese buying new cars have a hard time finding qualified technicians. "So I hope Morrisville can send me some of this equipment," he says.
Aside from donated equipment, it's clear that a place like Dalian has a lot to gain from a long-term relationship with a university like SUNY. For example, SUNY can help guide the construction of a new auto lab at Dalian's automotive school and can train Chinese instructors in how to impart the hands-on skills that auto technicians need before they hit the job market.