It isn't difficult to get Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. talking about China. Just a mention of the country can spark a lengthy discussion of everything from trade agreements to exotic foods — some of it in perfectly pronounced Mandarin.

It's the result of all the time he spent in that part of the world, first as a missionary in Taiwan for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he picked up the language, then as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and later as a U.S. trade representative in the region.

Today, the governor heads back to China to lead a weeklong trade mission that will include meetings with government leaders in Beijing and Shanghai. He heads a delegation that includes representatives of more than a dozen Utah companies.

His goal is to establish with China the same type of relationship Utah already has with Mexico, thanks to his July 2005 visit to Mexico City and meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and that he hopes to have eventually with Canada and India as well.

Huntsman likes to call it "foreign policy for a state that isn't supposed to have a foreign policy." States, of course, are not able to negotiate with foreign powers, so Utah's alliance with Mexico was never formalized.

It is, however, already producing ties between Utah companies and their counterparts in Mexico, as well as plans for educational and cultural exchanges. And Fox himself came to Utah, focusing the attention of the national and international media here.

"In China, we are there simply because of their prominence on the world stage and the way in which they are growing so rapidly," the governor told the Deseret Morning News. "We need to understand and capture those emerging opportunities."

On the map

Utah has plenty of competition from around the country and around the world for China's business. With a population of more than 1.3 billion, the Asian country is widely seen as one of the last largely untapped markets for many products and services.

"Everybody else is trying to go to China, not only from the United States but from Europe and all over the world," said Yanqi Tong, a University of Utah political science professor whose specialty is Chinese politics.

Tong, who studied at Peking University in her native Beijing before coming to the United States more than two decades ago, said Utah has a disadvantage to overcome in selling itself to the Chinese.

"A lot of people have never heard about Utah. The only thing they know about the United States is Washington and New York," she said. "The most important thing is name recognition. You have to really put your name on the map."

Huntsman agreed. In fact, the governor said, in the narration he recorded for a promotional film about Utah tourism that will be shown during this trip to travel officials, the state is identified as somewhere between Las Vegas and Yellowstone National Park.

Tong said that Utah does have something unique to offer — a governor who is at ease with the language and the culture. Huntsman is apparently the nation's only governor who speaks Mandarin, the language of China's government, business and educational elite.

"The Chinese in general are impressed if a foreigner can use chopsticks and speak Chinese. They know it is a difficult language," she said. "That will really win the governor some points, but how much, I don't know."

Diplomacy — and family

Kirk Jowers, head of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, also said that Huntsman's ability to communicate with the Chinese will make a big difference in how the state's efforts are perceived.

Jowers, who traveled to China and other parts of Asia for the first time last month to help set up a new internship program that will place U. students in government offices there, said the governor "is incredibly well-situated to make this a big boon for the state of Utah.

"He does very well with foreign officials due to his background," Jowers said. Not only has Huntsman served as a diplomat in Asia, he and his wife, Mary Kaye, also adopted a baby girl in China in 1999.

"The Chinese will be so impressed to have this governor come in speaking fluent Mandarin. He has a Chinese child," Jowers said. "They will feel he is truly interested in and respectful of the Chinese culture, and business and political customs."

Huntsman had hoped to bring his wife and their adopted daughter, Gracie Mei, now 7, along on this trip. But because plans to adopt another daughter, in India, have been delayed, they will stay behind.

Opening doors

The business leaders traveling to China hope to take advantage of whatever doors the governor can open. "Title means a lot in China, and having the governor there in China is wonderful," Wencor President Russell Adamson said.

The Springville-based aircraft parts distributor will announce a new joint venture with a Chinese company, Huaseng Science and Technology, during the trip. China already accounts for about $2 million of the company's annual sales of nearly $150 million.

With Huntsman there, Adamson said Wencor "will have much, much higher access to key individuals than we would have on our own. It will give us credibility in that market.... It makes a huge difference."

Several nutritional supplement companies are coming on the trip, including Provo-based Tahitian Noni Beverages and Nu Skin Enterprises, which markets personal care products.

Nu Skin has been selling its products in China since 2003 through some 160 stores and is only the second U.S. company to obtain a direct selling license in China, according to Kara Schneck, the company's senior director of corporate communications.

Last year, Chinese customers accounted for $102 million of the company's $1.2 billion in revenue, Schneck said. Now that direct selling is being introduced in Shanghai and soon, other cities, that is expected to increase.

"About 80 percent of our revenue comes from Asia," Schneck said, including $562 million last year from Japan alone. China may surpass that, she said. "Eventually, we expect that it will become one of our largest markets — or our largest market."

Travel expenses

The governor will make a quick stop at what may be the biggest Utah-based operation in China, a Huntsman Chemical Corp. plant in Shanghai. Huntsman, who sold his shares in the family company, said he's going to the plant because his father and brother will be there.

All of the trip, including the visit to the plant, is being paid for by Huntsman himself, according to Lisa Roskelley, a spokeswoman for the governor. The other participants are also responsible for their own travel expenses.

Utah Valley State College will spend about $5,000 to send Val Hale, vice president for institutional advancement and marketing, on the trip. Hale said the campus wants to attract more students from China as well as play a bigger role in the state's economic development.

"This gives us an opportunity to spend a week with some key business leaders from Utah and talk to them about what UVSC can do to be more involved in their businesses and the community as an economic force," Hale said, calling the cost of the trip "well worth it."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com