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September 18, 2015

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Mexico-China relations evolve beyond business

ARTURO Puente had a short visit to Shanghai in 2009 while the city was busy preparing for World Expo 2010. He returned five years later to begin a new journey as consul general at the Mexican Consulate General in Shanghai.

“Every day Shanghai gives you a surprise,” the Mexican says. “You always find new buildings, new Metro lines and new people on every visit.”

Starting his diplomatic career in 1979, Puente has an interesting mix of destinations on his CV. He has been stationed in Montreal, Miami, Houston, St Louis, Lebanon and Thailand.

Puente believes each area has a personality. In his eyes Shanghai is a modern metropolis where many foreigners and their cultures all add to its traditional Chinese flavor.

“We see the Sino-Mexican relationship today as a very special one. We share much similarities including advantages and problems. There are a lot things that we can face together,” Puente says. “Our relationship with China at the moment is actually the best it’s ever been.”

Commercial collaboration, of course, is widely considered a crucial part in bilateral relations, but Puente believes both countries can gain much more from each other.

“Trade is not the only thing we want to do,” says Puente.

Puente is keen in bolstering cultural, academic and tourist exchanges.

There are exchange programs between universities in Mexico and China’s Shanghai and Nanjing. Many Mexican students are choosing to stay in China after graduation as they see a great number of opportunities here.

Mexican musicians, artists and other cultural entities have been and will be visiting Shanghai with the support of Puente. Jazz musician Hector Infanzon wowed Shanghai audiences together with his quartet earlier this year. The band Zenzontle will visit Shanghai this week to mark the 205th anniversary of the independence of Mexico. Top Mexican chefs will also provide great food during the Mexican Food Festival through September 30.

Many people tend to put great emphasis on developing commercial collaboration, but Puente says cultural exchanges are sometimes more important as it helps the business side of things work better.

“Both Chinese and Mexicans are proud of their rich cultures. Such rich cultures can be used as business cards. Therefore, cultural exchanges between the two countries, in some way, are like businessmen exchanging name cards. It helps them to know each other, which eventually makes it much easier to start a business,” Puente says. “We always make great efforts to develop cultural exchange programs regardless of the limited resources. Such exchanges will never be enough.”

According to Puente, the biggest challenge in the bilateral relationship between China and Mexico still lies in old ideas deeply rooted in the people of the two countries.

For example, Chinese people tend to think Mexico is a very distant country that they would probably never visit.

“It may be true in the 16th century when it took six months for Chinese people to reach Mexico by ship and probably half of the travelers would die halfway. But today, you can be in Mexico City in 12 to 14 hours by flight. And with the help of the Internet, people can be connected to those at the other side of the globe within seconds,” Puente says. “Yet still, many Chinese people tend to label Mexico as someplace hard to reach. It is the same in how Mexican people see China. The distance is there, we have to admit. But there is always a way to overcome.”

Aeromexico restarted a direct flight from Mexico City to Shanghai in 2010. It stops in Tijuana and there are three flights a week. There’s also a direct flight from Guadalajara to Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan Province, which was established to transport agricultural products between the countries.

“We took our steps to bridging the two countries, and we are now expecting a response from China to do the same,” Puente says.

About 75,000 Chinese tourists visited Mexico last year. Though the number has increased in the past few years, it is still quite small compared with the number of Chinese traveling around the world each year.

“Many Chinese think it is difficult to get a Mexico visa. But it is actually just what they tend to think without even bothering to check or ask,” the consul general says. The visa application requirements are similar to other countries, he adds.

A high-speed railway project in Mexico was suspended last November, generating a big discussion in the Chinese media and among businessmen since several Chinese companies were involved.

The suspension was a legal decision made by the Mexican government due to a budget shortfall and the two sides are negotiating compensation at the moment, according to Puente.

“It should not pose a negative influence on the bilateral relationship, nor related commercial collaborations. Yet unfortunately it has,” Puente says. “Some companies believe that if it can happen to these companies, it can happen to them as well. However, they only saw a very limited part of the collaboration between the two countries.”

He says there are more than 900 Chinese companies doing business in Mexico and only this one project has been canceled.

“It was a big project, certainly, yet it is only a small part of the whole picture,” Puente says.

At a forum earlier this week where Chinese companies spoke about their Mexican experiences, Shenzhen-based Huawei, a telecommunications equipment maker, said it earned US$1 billion in profit in the country last year.

“But people don’t talk about this; they talk about the train,” Puente says. “Focusing on the train project keeps us from moving forward. We should put it aside and look for other opportunities.”


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