What does the US state of Kentucky mean to your average Chinese consumer? Kentucky Fried Chicken would probably be at the top of a very short list. KFC, as it now prefers to be called, is owned by Kentucky food giant Yum! Brands and much of its recent growth has come from China.
UPS, the logistics firm, has a big air hub in Louisville, Kentucky which is benefiting from soaring trade with China. But for the rest of Kentucky, China must still seem a very long way away.
Jonathan Miller, Kentucky's state treasurer, wants to bring Kentucky closer to China as he believes that is the only way that the state is going to achieve new prosperity in this new era.
He was recently invited to China as part of the Rodel fellowship programme run by the Aspen Institute, which brings together together young elected officials across the country to develop a “bipartisan vision· to lead the US into the 21st century.”
For Miller, the main take-home from the visit is that it is now “manifestly clear” that US/China affairs are the most significant bilateral relationship in the new economy, he writes in the Courier-Journal, a local newspaper.
Kentucky needs to play a stronger role in improving that relationship, he argues, and one of the most obvious ways to benefit from China is from tourism. In the next couple of years, Chinese tourist visas are expected to be relaxed, leading potentially to tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Chinese visitors to the US, he says.
Presumably, Kentucky would not normally figure on their list of must-visit destinations but Kentucky is already a well-known brand in China thanks to KFC, Miller argues. It needs to exploit this brand awareness and “immediately develop plans to attract Chinese tourists — and their money — to our parks, resorts and communities.”
He also calls on state government to provide help to existing Kentucky businesses to expand and develop in China, helping them tap into an enormous new consumer base in China's 1.3bn population.
His most interesting proposal concerns the environment. Miller says:
Beijing is shrouded in smog, composed of carbon emissions from coal plants and pollution from city development. Yet Chinese government leaders understand the health risks imposed, as well as the threat presented by climate change. Accordingly, they have embarked on aggressive carbon reduction strategies and clean energy technology development. Kentucky has the potential to emerge as a clean energy capital of the world.”
I'm not sufficiently familiar with Kentucky's local economy to judge whether it is well-placed to become a booming source of clean technology exports to China, as Miller hopes. But the idea is nevertheless an interesting one, and I suspect it has more potential than trying to attract KFC fans in China to visit the home of long-dead Colonel Sanders.