6 takeaways from Brown's mission to China

12:03 PM, Apr 17, 2013   |    comments
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Gov. Jerry Brown and a weary group of staff and reporters landed Wednesday morning in San Francisco, the end to an eight day trade and investment mission.

In all, more than 100 delegates visited four cities, with Brown tacking on an additional two for additional meetings with Chinese officials.

Now that we're home, what can be made of the trip? Here are six takeaways from your bleary eyed correspondent.

1. How Will Success Be Measured? That's probably the key question about any high profile trade mission. There certainly won't be any line item in future economic analyses crediting jobs or tax revenues from new Chinese partnerships.  But if success is measured by happy delegates, the early reviews are good. Several mentioned that the governor's large staff presence on the trip meant that any Chinese investor who came to the delegation hotel could get a quick answer on a host of regulatory, environmental, and other issues.

The bottom line is that trade is a long term thing, not quick impact; Brown said as much several times, emphasizing his interest in a relationship... not speed dating.

2. The Energizer Governor: If the itinerary is any measure of success, you'd also have to score this trip with high marks. Brown and his team rarely let up on the gas; if a Chinese local official said at the last minute that he (none were women) could meet with California's top dog, the Guv would add it to the schedule. And even though these were ceremonial, there was some shop talk.  No, no photo ops at the Great Wall; Jerry Brown was all business.

3. Did Brown Miss A Chance To Broaden The Conversation? The governor steadfastly refused to engage the Chinese on any issues beyond drumming up business and cleaning up the environment. And yet, there are many things his constituents may have wished he would have told them: concerns about human rights, a demand to do better about cybersecurity and intellectual property rights. These last two, after all, are undoubtedly business and economic issues, no? But the governor insisted these are things on which Washington, D.C. should engage the Chinese, not Sacramento... even though he's urged linkage of some of these issues in the past.

4. No Win Situation On Who Pays Brown's Way: The governor's trip was paid for by private, not public, dollars. Delegates handed over $10,000 each to attend, thus subsidizing Brown and other staffers. Right call or wrong call? Depends on whom you ask. Some argue that trade missions are in the public interest, others will deride them as a junket unworthy of state taxpayer dollars. Perhaps, but one shortcoming of private funding: no real transparency. News organizations, like ours, paid our own way and as such can estimate some of the costs for government officials. But there's no real accounting, and thus no way to assess value to expense, when businesses and others pick up a politician's tab. Again, no clear way to settle this ongoing debate in this era of limited tax dollars and heightened public scrutiny.

5. Brown The Builder? The governor's ebullient outlook on China's never ending construction boom was a daily theme. Several times he told us how he wished he could come back home and get the cranes up and the shovels in the ground on infrastructure projects. But enthusiasm can become impatience without an appreciation of how much harder (some would say rightly so) things can be in a democratic society. The Chinese government gets so much done because it doesn't answer to anyone. And Brown's "no more navel gazing" comments seem at odds with his otherwise "I'm in it for the long haul" vibe on Chinese trade and cooperation.

6.  Countdown 2014: In an extended session on Tuesday with reporters, I tried to ask the governor about whether he'll seek reelection...without really asking him. Brown has avoided answering the direct question before, and so there was no reason to just ask it again. So I asked whether a possible fight with Democratic interest groups over CEQA might hurt "your reelection campaign."

I know, that's not the most clever angle. Still, Brown simply said, "Why would it?" as though everyone knows that he'll seek an unprecedented fourth term. Later he talked about success on the CEQA issue "before I leave the stage."

Spolier alert: there's no reason to believe the 2014 ballot will not include the name of Edmund G. Brown, Jr. It seems virtually certain.


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