As local leaders court China, questions abound

By Mande Wilkes

Deja vu! For the third time in a matter of months, I find myself reporting on the budding “bro-mance” between local officials and Chinese businessmen.

This time, Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes and Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus have just finished a 16-day trip to China. If you weren't aware of it, don't feel left out - all but one mainstream media outlet ignored the story.

So, what was the purpose of the trip? Heck if I know. The sojourn was shrouded in secrecy, with details promised only upon the pair's return.

Recently, local leaders have characterized the relationship with China as a way to infuse money into the area. I've a number of doubts about the mutualism of that arrangement.

To start with, China is communist - which means that when we deal with Chinese businessmen, we're dealing with the Chinese government. There's but limited private enterprise in China, with the state owning or controlling much of the economy.

I'm not comforted, then, at the idea that our local government is palling around with the government of China - a country that holds not only much of our debt, but also holds in its hands our economic future. Donald Trump's candidacy - as bizarre as it has been - has underscored the urgency of China's currency-manipulation scheme, which has crippled American industry.

With that in mind, it seems like a partnership with China is ill-advised, if not altogether treasonous. Add to that the fact that Grand Strand businesses stand to take a direct hit if China continues its buy-up of local land. The Chinese have already purchased $50 million in golf courses across the county - will they lay off those workers, and bring in their own teams?

And regardless, why must we suck up to foreign investors? Last I checked, the town is full of spirited, entrepreneurial people who'd love to contribute to the area's growth. I'd like to see officials court those people - those who live here, those with an interest in bettering the town; those who elected them, and those whom they serve.

As for who financed the officials' trip to China, that too remains a mystery. If South Carolina taxpayers paid for it, or for a portion of it, we should know that. We should have had a say in that. As it stands, I wouldn't be surprised to see it buried within some vague line-item in the budget. In fact, when I raised questions about that last fall (after a different trip abroad), the City was unable to say with certainty whether and to what extent taxpayers were on the hook for travel expenses - instead ducking under a let's-wait-and-see dodge.

Equally as scary is the prospect that China paid for the trip. Why exactly would a foreign country, or foreign businessmen, pay the way for a couple of small-town leaders? What might they be expecting in return? The phrase quid pro quo comes to mind, though I hate to jump to conclusions in the event that everything is actually kosher. (Sidebar: how do you say “collusion” in Chinese?)

And that's the biggest problem, you see: With no transparency, all we can do is draw our own inferences and conclusions about these misadventures abroad. For all we know, this most recent trip might be benign and even beneficial. So why all the mystery? If this relationship with China is going to reap rewards, why don't local officials explain the process, the costs, and the anticipated returns?

As a Myrtle Beach native, I'm holding out hope that area leaders are getting this right, even if they're going about it all wrong. I ask simply for a measure of transparency as local government diverts time, talent, and treasure to foreign entities.

Hold out hope, everybody. But don't hold your breath.

Mande Wilkes is a local cultural critic. Email her at m@mandewilkes.com.