As a whole, Americans are not well versed on China. That’s partly because it’s a communist country and we carry deeply in-grained attitudes about those countries.

But even a quick tour of China reveals that the people are warm, bright and ambitious. 

That’s not to say everything is free and easy in China, or that the people aren’t still facing plenty of restrictions and repression. But the people – particularly young people – seem optimistic that things will continue to change in a positive direction.

Leading that optimism is the fact that China’s government is taking an open-market approach to economic development. Some of that likely is a result of Hong Kong becoming part of China in 1997 following 99 years of British rule. As the world’s largest trade port, Hong Kong’s business sector has long been unobstructed, and the Chinese government has left well enough alone. Hong Kong even uses its own currency, and its 6.8 million people don’t face the same restrictions as those in Mainland China. 

Rather than dictating what and how things should be done, the government is letting entrepreneurs try their hand at developing China’s market. While in southern China, I met several energetic entrepreneurs. Among them was a 31-year-old who sold books for 10 years, then switched to the restaurant business in 1999 because he spotted an opportunity for western food. He now has two restaurants that seat a total of 900 people. But, he doesn’t plan to stop there, and his marketing finesse suggests he’ll have the opportunity to grow. 

Chinese officials also want other countries and businesses to embrace the opportunities that the 1.3 billion people and land have to offer.

Of course many companies are already responding, as “Made in China” is found on everything from bolts to glassware to sneakers.

Riding along a stretch of highway, I saw row after row of factories and the dormitories that go with them. It was sobering sight.

A few days after returning home, I stopped at a hardware store. An older gentleman was buying a small item – for about $3.89. He saw that it was made in China and huffed, “seems like everything’s made in China today.”

I bit my tongue at first, then explained that I had just returned from China, where I had seen the rows of factories where people live and work for $80 a month to make such items. He and the clerk were intrigued by this new perspective. 

But what does this have to do with U.S. pork? It all contributes to gaining perspective and developing a better understanding of   the market. When you understand a little bit about the factories and the workers it puts “Made in China” into perspective.

The U.S. pork industry wants to sell more U.S. product in China, but for some Chinese it will change and may diminish their market, for others it will present opportunity.

China is the fourth largest nation, behind Russia, Canada and the United States. It is slightly smaller than the United States, but has only 10 percent arable land. What’s more, the country continues to lose useful agricultural land to soil erosion and development. China must feed 13 people for each hectare of arable land. In comparison, Europe must feed 4.1 people, and the United States, only 1.4 people.

So, there is tremendous opportunity to expand pork and other food product sales to China. But whether in the United States or China, price is important to consumers.

Further adding to U.S. pork’s export opportunity is the fact that China is changing – quickly. Among my more distinct impressions of China is that it’s a country of tremendous contrasts – rich/poor, old/new, traditional/progressive.

A return trip a year from now would reveal dramatic changes, as buildings seem to be popping up everywhere and the population continues to shift both in location and culture.          

Also, in 2008 Bejing, China, will host the Olympic Games. The Chinese government will work hard to show the world that it is not your typical communist country. Rather that it is a dynamic, evolving country.

Yes, there is opportunity to export more U.S. pork products to China, but it won’t come without assertive pursuit and attention to the market – the same qualities required of today’s Chinese entrepreneurs.