BEIJING — Leading a trade mission to China, Gov. Gary Herbert has consistently told government and business leaders here that Utah and the world's most populous nation have much to share.

"Utah has a lot in common with China," Herbert said at what was billed as "An Evening of Business and Culture" with leaders from the central Chinese city of Wuhan. He ticked off a list that included hosting the Olympics, Utah's former governor and now U.S. ambassador to China Jon M. Huntsman Jr., educational links and an increasing number of Utah school children learning Chinese.

At the Sunday event, a calligraphy exhibit and tall models sporting a spectacular array of Chinese-themed dresses were eye catching, but the bread and butter of the trip is good old-fashioned networking, albeit with translators in tow.

"International business is a combat sport," said Lew Cramer, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah. "We say the most important business conversation takes place in the last three feet. So if you're actually looking people in the eye, shaking their hands, making the deal, it's much more effective and credible."

The trade mission offers a series of just those kinds of opportunities for a group of Utah entrepreneurs to make face-to-face connections.

But the place has its challenges, including an at times befuddling bureaucracy and tough limits on free speech, a free press and privacy.

"It's obviously one our most important relationships in the world," Robert Wang, deputy chief of mission with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

But, "it's a complicated one," he added.

A panel from the embassy offered "best practices" for doing business in China, with which the U.S. engages in $450 billion in trade. The United States hopes to reach $90 billion in exports to China this year, a 20 percent increase over last year.

"It's a very important trade partner and investing partner," said Wang. "China has a lot of money, and it's looking to invest it around the world."

Members of the panel also told the trade delegation that recent unrest in the Middle East lead to a crackdown on protests and journalists covering the events and to the detention of a prominent artist.

One University of Chicago Ph.D. ran afoul of the law by downloading some geological information and ended up getting sentenced to 8 years in prison.

"They're on edge about anything that would disrupt stability, which is crucial for economic growth," said Wang.

Another panelist told the Utah group environmental damage is a huge problem, with 50 percent of the water undrinkable — 20 percent so polluted it can't even be used for industry.

But the opportunities for growth in many sectors are extremely promising, according to the panel, like "green tech water," cleaner vehicles, smart grid electricity networks and technology aimed at making the burning of coal less polluting.

Plus, the so-called second-tier cities, like Wuhan, are growing rapidly and looking to partner with smaller cities in the U.S.

China has 50 cities with populations of more than 10 million, and many aim to build ties with the United States.

At a separate event Monday, the Huntsmans welcomed members of the trade mission and Chinese officials to a reception and dinner hosted by Zions Bank.

Huntsman, who is wrapping up his service as ambassador this month, spoke and joked in fluent Mandarin, telling stories and describing his family's time there as a "tutorial."

Herbert got a good laugh when alluding to Huntsman's return later this month to the U.S., saying "who knows what the future will hold? We hear a lot of things back in Utah."

Huntsman, who has purchased a home in Washington, D.C., is reportedly considering a run for the Republican nomination for president.

E-mail: jdaley@desnews.com