Last night was the proposal’s formal unveiling: The annual gala dinner of the U.S.-China Capital Cities Friendship Council, which Liu chairs. Held in a chilly room in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt downtown, the event drew Mayor Vincent Gray, former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, and councilmembers Michael Brown and Vincent Orange. The current and former chief executives, at least, gave the project their enthusiastic endorsement.
“Wouldn’t that bring additional energy here to the District of Columbia the likes of which we’ve never seen?” Gray told the crowd. “When we were talking about it coming in, I couldn’t stop peppering [Liu] with questions. When is it gonna start? Where is it gonna go? When is it gonna be open? Because once again, I think it would further cement the relationship between the United States and China, and the District of Columbia and Beijing. I look forward to working with you, Mr. Liu, to make the Washington Global Trade Center a reality.”
Gray admitted to me after the speech that he first heard of the project this evening, and didn’t know anything else about its feasibility.
Kelly, who doesn’t bear any actual responsibility for making things happen these days, also thought it was a great idea.
“This vision of this center that so beautifully capitalizes on the potential of this city with the great economic power emerging in this world is absolutely perfect,” she gushed. “So anything any of us can do to advance this dream and this purpose, I’m here to say, you have my support. I think it is absolutely brilliant.”
So how does Liu actually plan to push this thing forward? He told me on Friday that he expects the whole thing to cost about $600 million, a good chunk of which would go towards the purchase of air rights from the city (Louis Dreyfus paid in the neighborhood of $63 million for its bit of sky, directly south). Along with a variety of companies that will want to set up offices in the Center to facilitate commerce—-cutting out the middlemen who make Chinese goods much more expensive in the U.S., Liu says—-the business case for the Trade Center largely depends on the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. Chinese drugmakers, Liu says, lack familiarity with American patent system and the Silver Spring-based Food and Drug Administration.
“If we can get us FDA to approve the drug, I can tell you, you can sell the drug anywhere in the world,” he told the audience.
Maybe. According to a recent report from KPMG consultants, China’s pharmaceutical industry has been going gangbusters since a major healthcare reform in 2009 that aimed for universal coverage in 2020. But that growth seems largely focused domestically; international drugmakers like Merck and Glaxo Smith Kline are trying to get a piece of the Chinese market, rather than the other way around.
“Over the next few decades, China has the potential to become one of the leaders of the pharmaceutical world,” the KPMG report reads. “With every big company in the sector focusing on this region as a source of growth, the country is likely to play an increasingly significant role in the in the way drugs are invented, tested, and perhaps even regulated.”
Still, Liu is upbeat that this thing can happen, and is using Washington’s beaten-down business identity as a selling point.
“In this table in this room, some people has money they can bring from China, because I convince a lot of people this is good idea,” he said. “You can see Washington D.C. will be so powerful, we control all the world business. A lot of people think New York is the business center. No, Washington is the business center! We regulate the stock exchange! We print money! New York cannot print money.”
It’s hard to argue with that.