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ROBERT SMITH:

In China today, cities have to compete with one another for talent. That's pushing smaller cities there to look for help from the United States.

This week, we're taking a close look at education issues in China. NPR's Larry Abramson has this report on the unlikely alliance between a small American university and the city of Dalian, China.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Earlier this year, Professor Dennis Simon of the State University of New York stood up before about 30 members of a delegation from Dalian, China, a coastal city not far from the border with North Korea. They had traveled all the way to Manhattan to hear Simon speak.

Dalian aspires to be a world-class, high-tech city. Simon told them Dalian may have come a long way...

Professor DENNIS SIMON (State University of New York): But the problem is if you measure Dalian compared to the global level of quality and performance, Dalian still has a long way to go before it reaches, really, that global level of excellence.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Simon is a big man with a graying beard and unruly hair. The Chinese delegation listened carefully to him because Simon has made dozens of trips to Dalian and other cities, beginning as early as 1981.

Simon explains to the Dalian officials that some U.S. cities have chosen to specialize in software or wine. Some of those bets, he explains, have failed. They ask Simon what he'd recommend for their city by the sea.

Prof. SIMON: I actually think that we should open up some restaurant chain in the United States called Dalian Seafood. That's my idea.

ABRAMSON: These residents of Dalian know Dennis Simon is on their side. His decades-old links to Dalian have earned Simon the title of science and technology advisor to the city of Dalian. What's in it for him?

Prof. SIMON: I don't get paid a penny for the work that I do with Dalian. This is very much an endeavor from my perspective of learning more deeply about how the Chinese system works.

ABRAMSON: Simon's connection to Dalian is a perfect example of the role of guanxi, that untranslatable Chinese word for those all-important personal connections. It can take a lifetime to develop those ties in China, but you can shortcut the whole process just by mentioning Dennis Simon's name in Dalian. Suddenly, doors fly open.

Unidentified Man: Oh, are we taking a picture?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Oh, okay...

ABRAMSON: That's what happened to me when I dropped in. Chinese bureaucrats can be suspicious of outsiders, especially foreign journalists, but at Dennis Simon's urging, the leaders of Dalian bent over backwards to show off their city. Tea was poured, PowerPoint presentations were fired up about the city's efforts to foster start-up businesses.

Unidentified Woman #3: I would like to extend to you our warmest welcome to you to visit our incubator base.

ABRAMSON: In a sign of just how media-savvy Dalian has become, we were trailed by photographers and videographers.

Dennis Simon's training efforts have emboldened this midsized seaport to think big and turn its face toward the English-speaking world. For years, Dalian was known for older industries like ship-building and for its close ties to nearby Japan. Now the city is trying to figure out where its future lies.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: In a country known for polluted mega-cities, Dalian is a breath of fresh air. It has a San Francisco feel, with hills in the backdrop, a dramatic seascape and great seafood.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Through translator) Madame Liu thinks the communication between countries is very important.

ABRAMSON: Over one of those great seafood meals, I asked Liu Xiao Ying, director general of the city's Science and Technology Bureau, the inevitable question.

If I am an entrepreneur, why should I be based in Dalian and not in Beijing or Shanghai?

Ms. LIU XIAO YING (Director General, Science and Technology Bureau, Dalian, China): (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Madame Liu, as she's known, touts the city's beautiful scenery, the moderate weather and the universities and colleges around Dalian.

Now, Madame Liu can't take credit for the weather, but she and her colleagues are trying to beef up the quality of those universities. To do that, they are depending on their old friend Dennis Simon, who has suggested they work with the SUNY campus in tiny Morrisville, New York.

(Soundbite of factory machines)

ABRAMSON: When it comes to cars, Dalian has a lot to learn from Morrisville. This is Dalian's School of Automotive Technology at the University of Technology. For a huge university, this auto program is tiny. There's only room for a couple of cars in the small garage. The curriculum isn't well-developed, and Professor Ping Hu concedes, through a translator, the school does not have the equipment or the expertise that Chinese drivers will need when they start buying their new, computerized vehicles.

Professor PING HU (Professor, School of Automotive Technology, Dalian University): (Through translator) Yes, now the majority of Chinese people, if they want to buy a car, especially a very expensive car, there are many factors we have to consider.

ABRAMSON: Is it hard to find good technicians around China to fix your car?

Prof. HU: (Through translator) Yes, it's difficult.

Prof. HU: So I hope Morrisville can send me some of this equipment, old equipment.

ABRAMSON: You hope they'll donate?

Prof. HU: Yes, I hope.

ABRAMSON: Aside from donated equipment, it's clear that a place like Dalian has a lot to gain from a long-term relationship with the State University of New York. What does SUNY get from all this work? More on that, and a visit to Morrisville, in tomorrow's story. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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