by Peter Mertz
SALT LAKE CITY, the United States, Oct. 9 (Xinhua) -- When United Flight 891 landed in Shanghai from San Francisco on Monday, a high-level delegation of U.S. business and political leaders from the state of Utah hit the ground running -- with the goal of putting China trade first.
"Despite the trade disagreements between our two governments on a national level, at the subnational level, it is more important than ever to strengthen links between Utah and China," said Utah's Republican Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes, before his departure to San Francisco, a main transportation hub between inland United States and China.
Hughes joins a dozen high-profile Utah businessmen in an extraordinary trip to Asia's largest economy, amid rising trade tensions between the two countries.
It is seen by political insiders to directly defy White House actions including new tariffs on 200 billion U.S. dollars of imports from China last month and threats to impose tariffs on more Chinese products.
"Despite the U.S. administration's current attitude towards China, this Republican state of Utah is traveling to China to continue to build bridges," said education expert Dan Stephenson, who helped organize the trade mission.
China is Utah's third largest trading partner, and in 2017, the Beehive State exported goods worth almost 740 million dollars to China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Utah delegation includes the president of Utah's largest bank, Zion Bank, and top management from personal care product giant Nu Skin, to Deseret Management, a leading investment company based in the state.
Perhaps the biggest money man on the trans-Pacific flight is Jim Swartz, co-founder of venture capital (VC) giant Accel.
In 2017, Accel Partners was called America's No. 1 VC firm by Nanalyze.com, and since 1983 has provided billions of dollars in funding to companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, Flipkart, Qualtrics, Spotify and Vox Media.
The week-long trade and diplomatic excursion is scheduled to begin with meeting officials at the Port of Shanghai, and a visit to the Youth Innovation Center in Shanghai's Jiading District, where a joint project -- "Sister Community of Learning" -- is underway, according to Stephenson, executive director of Economic Bridge International.
"Utah has more K-12 students learning Chinese per capita than any other state, which will ensure a vibrant relationship with China long into the future," Hughes told Xinhua in an interview via phone on Friday.
Thanks to Stephenson's father, Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, a powerful state politician for 25 years, pioneered and implemented a decade ago a U.S.-Chinese dual language immersion program in its public schools.
"We're going to China to extend friendship, and make apparent Utah commitment to China during the trade war," Dan Stephenson told Xinhua.
The second leg of the trade mission will be in Beijing, where the delegation will meet with Chinese officials involved with trade, commerce and arts.
The Utah team will also join U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad for a discussion with prominent Chinese investors.
Small in population with 3.1 million people, Utah was 31st nationally with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 165 billion dollars in 2017, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
Top Utah exports to China include computer and electronic products, chemicals, machinery and agricultural products.
"We will be working on issues in several fields, including art, education, innovation, and trade," noted Miles Hansen, president and CEO of Utah's World Trade Center (WTC).
Hansen recently became the director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council in the White House after having served as a staff aide to the State Department's assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, Hansen took the WTC leadership role in his home state this past summer.
"In a time of divisiveness at home and abroad, Utah is a prime example of all sides working together to tackle challenges through the proper application of pragmatic principles," he said.
"China is one of Utah's most important trading partners, and we are seeing growing relationships in many industries, including technology, manufacturing, and agriculture," Hansen told Xinhua.