ROCKPORT — Members of some of China’s largest banks and one of the country’s top diplomats took center stage Thursday at the annual Maine International Trade Center conference, touting China as an increasingly important trade partner and Maine as a strong candidate for Chinese investment.

Zhang Qiyue, the Chinese Consul General in New York, reassured representatives from Maine’s export community that the middle class in China continues to expand and offer new markets for Maine-sourced products, particularly lobster. Lobster sales to China jumped from zero in 2007 to $21.4 million in 2014, making China the top destination for Maine lobster outside North America. Seafood was Maine’s leading export in 2014, with a value of $456.67 million, and lobster accounted for almost $366 million of those exports. Increasingly, the destination for Maine lobster is Asia.

While China’s pace of growth has been slowing, Zhang said, its GDP is nevertheless expanding by about 7 percent this year. Since China first implemented free market reforms in 1979, 600 million Chinese people have been brought out of deep poverty, Zhang told the gathering of 350 people at the Samoset Resort.

“Over the next 30 years, China will add 600 million middle-class people,” she said. “For consumers, producers and investors, this is good news for China and the rest of the world. I hope you are prepared for this.”

Zhang traveled with a delegation of 14 people, including New York-based representatives from five Chinese financial institutions: the Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, the People’s Insurance Company of China, the Chinese Reinsurance Corp., and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which is now the largest bank in the world. In addition, a representative from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce joined the delegation.

The Rockland conference’s emphasis on China laid the foundation for a trade mission to China and Japan that is planned for October. Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center, said the mission aims to build on a combined $280 million export market in those countries and also attract investment to Maine.

China is Maine’s second biggest trading partner, trailing only Canada in the value of goods exchanged, Bisaillon-Cary said. Japan is fourth.

She said the trip to Japan will focus on growing Maine exports, while the trip to China will focus on luring Chinese investment to Maine. In addition, Maine’s colleges, universities and private high schools want to recruit more Chinese students. There are about 1,000 Chinese students now studying in Maine.

Maine is an attractive place for investment because of its growing agricultural sector, said Yuqiang Xiao, chairman of the U.S. Management Committee and general manager of the New York branch of ICBC. He said there is high demand in China for high-quality food from the United States. He said there is also interest in investing in Maine’s infrastructure, such as its ports and rails, to enhance the state’s export potential.

Zhang said there’s also strong interest in fisheries, forestry, tourism and education.

John Butera, senior economic adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, said the trip to Asia will give business people in Maine and China an opportunity to meet face-to-face. “It all starts with getting to know people,” he said. “Nobody is going to pick up the phone and invest here. You’ve got to develop a relationship.”

LePage, who will travel on the mission in October, took part in a previous trade mission to China in 2012, the first gubernatorial mission to mainland China.

Butera said Maine officials on that trip helped convince the Chinese company, International Grand Investment Corp., to ramp up its investment in Woodland Pulp in Baileyville. The company last year added two paper machines, which created 80 new jobs.

Thursday in Rockport, the Chinese delegation and LePage met behind closed doors. Afterward, LePage said he wants to return to China this year and find more investors and create more success stories like the Woodland Pulp project. “We are working on a couple of other projects and want to keep it going,” he said.


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