An American in Wuhan witnesses the development of central China

Steve Carpenter, Chair of AmCham China Central China Chapter's Executive Committee, showcases a piece of traditional Chinese handicraft in his home in Wuhan, Hubei Province, central China, on May 31 (ZHANG WEI)

In January 2004, Steve Carpenter arrived in Jingshan, Hubei Province in central China, with his wife and three young children, where he was going to open a new chapter in his life. He was to work as the general manager of Diamond Power Machine (Hubei) Co. Ltd., one of the first foreign joint ventures in the province.

Life in Jingshan was full of fun. As almost the only expats in the city, the Carpenter family was popular among locals and many wanted to get pictures with the Carpenter children when they walked through the city.

However, because college graduates, especially in the early 2000s, preferred to work in big cities, rather than small cities like Jingshan, the company set up headquarters in Wuhan, the province’s capital city. The Carpenter family moved 150 km east to Wuhan in 2006.

The family planned to stay in China for only three years, but now they still live in the country and have become integrated into the society. “I don’t think we ever in our minds thought 20 years later we’d still be here. The idea of leaving China is hard to think of as we have made many good friends,” the foreign Hubei native told Beijing Review.

Witness of Wuhan’s development

Carpenter has been an active member of the AmCham Central China Chapter since its beginning in 2009, where he served on its executive committee from 2009 to 2012. Now, he is the chair of the executive committee. During his years in Wuhan, he has witnessed the rapid development of the city. For instance, the development of the public transportation system from one light rail to 11 new subway lines. Also, the city has grown into an important industrial base in China, with complete industrial systems for steel, automobiles, optoelectronics and other industries.

In the eyes of the 58-year-old, the perfect description of Wuhan is “the best-kept secret.” He explained that though it seems that Wuhan is not as glamorous as Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to people outside China, the city has all of the great things those regions have. Also, its population is also very international as he has known people from over 40 countries and regions there. As a marathoner, he also likes to explore Wuhan’s cityscape.

He thinks Wuhan in many ways is more beautiful than those metropolises. “There are so many little lakes around here, so many interesting places to go and visit,” he said.

Currently, he works for Profab China, a U.S. company producing environmental equipment. From when he first came to China to now, there has been a continuous effort by the government to take care of the environment, he said, adding it is obvious that the air and water are much cleaner. “Our businesses have benefited from that… so we plan to continue to invest here,” he said.

Confidence in China’s market

Carpenter thinks today’s China is more open than that of the early 2000s, and has created more opportunities for international companies. There have been many foreign experts coming over and many companies in China have hired foreign general managers, he said.

“One of the biggest and most obvious examples is Tesla coming to China. It is a completely 100 percent foreign-owned company in the automotive industry, rather than a joint venture with a Chinese partner,” he explained, adding this shows how China is opening up some of its markets to the rest of the world.

Carpenter noted that although COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of the supply chains of many companies, which, as a result, are trying to diversify their supply chains in their home countries, he still thinks China is a good place to invest.

“Instead of just producing lower-end products in the supply chain, they need to diversify their supply chain in China because it has grown up so much and so many of the industries are now very competitive,” he said.

He also pointed out that this is one of the best times to invest in China because of its educated workforce and experienced management force that have developed over the past 30 or 40 years.

Apart from being an employee of U.S. companies, Carpenter has another role in China—as an entrepreneur. “It was an easy process to start a business here. I have started three.” One of them is in senior care and has gotten a lot of support from the local government.

In 2019, some former senators from the U.S. paid a visit to China and they wanted to talk with some Americans in Wuhan. When Carpenter told them about his businesses, one of them was surprised at the fact he had complete ownership of his company in China. He thinks that people in a position to set policies in the U.S. should gain a better understanding of China.

When he first came to China, the relationship between the two countries was on the rise, he recalled. Speaking of the current bilateral relations, he said “I am saddened to see tensions rising in that relationship.”

Carpenter thinks that the tensions that the two countries experience now are a result of misunderstanding and a lack of understanding. “I wish that I could do something to help change that because I think both China and the U.S. are great countries and we should work together [to build a better world].”  –The Daily Mail-Beijing Review news exchange item