BEIJING - On his first foreign trade mission, Governor Deval L. Patrick yesterday told a Beijing audience Massachusetts and China have had a "special trade relationship" that spans more than two centuries. Patrick noted the first US merchant ship to sail for China - in 1784 - had Boston owners.
The governor and a delegation of about a dozen business executives and academic and state government officials are meeting with their Chinese counterparts to discuss biotech and clean energy. They are not expected to strike any business deals before heading home Friday, after traveling to Shanghai for more ceremonies and meetings.
Members of the delegation will also meet with executives of China's Hainan Airlines in hopes of establishing direct flights between Boston and Beijing, possibly to begin in 2009, according to Massachusetts Port Authority chief executive Thomas Kinton, who said talks have been underway for two years.
"I can't tell you as I sit here right now whether we'll be ready to announce it before we go, but we're certainly getting closer," Patrick said.
Yesterday, the Massachusetts visitors and their Chinese hosts traded optimistic speeches and ate lunch in a glass atrium in a high-tech business park adjacent to Beijing's Tsinghua University, surrounded by high-rises that are home to the Chinese offices of such companies as Google, Microsoft Corp., and the Chinese Internet portal Sohu.com. Several speakers from the Massachusetts group made noble attempts at short Mandarin pronunciations during their remarks.
One of those on the trip, University of Massachusetts Medical School professor Craig Mello, was named an honorary professor at Tsinghua University during a ceremony yesterday. Mello, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine for work on a gene-blocking technology called RNAi, said he hopes to set up a facility in China to work with a new life science center planned for UMass.
"We'd like to partner with China, and with Tsinghua perhaps, to develop a sister facility here in China that will commercialize and share in the discoveries," Mello said in a speech to students. "We're hoping that we can forge a real, meaningful alliance where Tsinghua and UMass would team up to develop RNAi therapeutics and develop new technology around RNAi, and maybe share intellectual property as well."
In addition to negotiating a direct flight from Boston and furthering life sciences research, one of the trip's goals is to explore the possibility of Massachusetts companies working to develop offshore wind projects in China to help meet the country's increasing demand for energy. Dennis Duffy, vice president of regulatory affairs for Cape Wind Associates LLC, said China's coast is similar to New England's in that energy demand is concentrated near the ocean, where offshore winds could produce energy at peak hours. Using wind power for China's vast inland territory is more problematic, Duffy said, mostly because power would have to be transmitted over great distances and wind sources there do not coincide as well with peak-use times.
Joshua Boger, chief executive of the Cambridge biotech Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and chairman of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said collaborations with China do not pose a risk to life sciences jobs in the United States. In fact, he said, Vertex's collaboration with the Chinese chemical company Wuxi is an "important part" of a project that led Vertex to hire 250 people last year.
Before the delegation left for China, some human rights activists and state Representative Byron Rushing, Democrat of Boston, urged Patrick to use the trip to press officials on issues ranging from working conditions in China to Tibet and human rights. The governor yesterday noted foreign policy is the responsibility of the federal government, but he said the issues would be discussed privately with Chinese officials.
"I think that when we have conversations at the government-to-government level, issues of civil and human rights will certainly come up," he said.
Becky Deusser, a spokeswoman for Patrick, said the delegation arrived late Sunday after a flight delay. Although this is Patrick's first trip to China as governor, she said, he has visited the country before on business, including as an executive at Coca Cola Co.
China is Massachusetts' sixth-largest export market and one of the state's fastest growing. In 2006, Massachusetts companies exported nearly $1.3 billion in merchandise to China, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2005, according to the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research, a nonprofit research group at Holyoke Community College. China last year was the fastest growing export market among the state's major trading partners.
Patrick said other trade missions are in the works, but he did not provide specifics. This is not the last trip to China under his administration, he said.
"We may not get all the deals we want done on this first trip," Patrick said. "But we have to continue to come back, show the interest, show the engagement of senior government officials, because that does matter here in Chinese business culture."
Robert Gavin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.