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Hands off our heritage: Some wary of China's reach

Thursday - 12/13/2012, 2:28am  ET

In this Sept. 10, 2012 photo, Jean-Michel Guillon, owner of the Domaine Guillon, stands in his cellar Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy, Eastern France in Burgundy, Eastern France. Guillon, who led a local bid to buy the thousand-year-old Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin, says a state agency valued the estate at 3.5 million euros. His group first offered 4 million euros, then 5 million, but the Masson family, which has owned the estate for more than 150 years, refused. "They said, 'We want more, we want a million each,'" Guillon says. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

NICK PERRY
Associated Press

GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN, France (AP) -- Life in this French village revolves around wine. The backyards of its tidy houses nurture the grapes that have made Burgundy famous the world over. At an auto repair shop, everyone seems to have an opinion about the recent sale of a local vineyard to a Macau casino magnate.

"It's a piece of French heritage that's heading abroad," says mechanic Bertrand Babouhot. Across the road, rows of gnarled vines lead to the rundown chateau that was sold. "It's like selling the Eiffel Tower to the Americans."

On the other side of the globe, farmer Margaret Peacock expresses similar outrage over the sale of 13 dairy farms in New Zealand's rural heartland to a wealthy property developer from Shanghai.

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EDITOR'S NOTE -- This story is part of "China's Reach," a project tracking China's influence on its trading partners over three decades and exploring how that is changing business, politics and daily life. Keep up with AP's reporting on China's Reach, and join the conversation about it, using the hashtag (hash)APChinaReach on Twitter.

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Such sentiments have long been directed at Americans and Japanese. Now it's China's turn, a sign that the new economic giant is beginning to usurp America's role as a leading trader and global investor.

Crushing grapes in France and milking cows in New Zealand represent much more than ways to make a living. Both are traditions that cut to the core of cultural identity, forming part of a national heritage the French call "patrimoine."

So when outsiders pay substantially above market rates to buy such assets, it often awakens deep feelings of unease. Many recognize that the foreigners are providing much-needed cash to often struggling industries, but they also fear losing a part of their country's soul and the intellectual capital that adds value to their economy.

China's overseas investment totaled $67.6 billion last year, one sixth of America's $400 billion, and could reach $2 trillion by 2020, forecasts Rhodium Group, a New York research firm.

While much money has poured into mining and other relatively anonymous businesses, Chinese investors have also set their sights on such iconic assets as automaker Volvo in Sweden, corner bars in Madrid and farmland in Argentina.

Sometimes, as in Sweden, the investment is accepted in the face of few other serious offers for a struggling company. Under Chinese ownership, Volvo has added about 2,000 workers in Europe. Other times, as in New Zealand, the reaction is a lawsuit -- even if the would-be buyer is rescuing a bankrupt farm.

"If they want to buy land, they should come and live here and farm it themselves," Peacock says over a cup of tea. "Like the rest of us."

It can be hard to distinguish where genuine concerns end and xenophobia begins. After all, China is just the latest in a long line of foreign buyers, but with a culture that many in the West find more alien than those that came before.

Gevrey-Chambertin is the kind of French village where the waiter chastises diners who don't order a glass of locally made wine, even at a midweek lunch. So when Louis Ng Chi Sing purchased the thousand-year-old Chateau de Gevrey-Chambertin and some surrounding vineyards in May for 8 million euros ($10.5 million) it set off a firestorm.

The 24-hour news channels descended on the village, and the national newspapers wrote up full-page stories chronicling the loss of a piece of France to "le Chinois," French for a Chinese person.

Ng is actually from Hong Kong and works in Macau. While both are Chinese territories, their economies are measured separately from China's, so his vineyard purchase wouldn't be included in China's overseas investment.

The backlash against him, though, is closely linked to China -- as is his casino fortune. Mainland tourists, notably high-rollers who frequent flashy private rooms, have helped Macau overtake Las Vegas as the world's biggest gambling market.

Grape growers in Gevrey-Chambertin say the price Ng paid is exorbitant and threatens their ability to keep their vineyards in family hands. Jean-Michel Guillon, who led a local bid to buy the chateau, says a state agency valued the estate at 3.5 million euros. His group first offered 4 million euros, then 5 million, but the Masson family, which has owned the estate for more than 150 years, refused.

"They said, 'We want more, we want a million each,'" Guillon says in his cellar, surrounded by barrels of fermenting grape juice. "There are seven of them, so 7 million, minimum."

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