Supporters say the center, to open Feb. 18, could give a vital edge to the state's economy -- where China, including Hong Kong, makes up the state's fourth-largest export market.
"It's critical for us to have a China center," said Peter Cunningham, international trade director of the state Department of Commerce. "China is a fast-growing, emerging market for North Carolina."
The numbers are proof, he said.
In the past few years, China has surpassed such industrial heavyweights as the United Kingdom and Germany as an importer of goods from North Carolina. It has become a voracious buyer in industries key to the Triangle, such as computer products, telecommunications, wood and plastics. And its purchases of North Carolina-made pharmaceutical products, especially insulin, shot up 2,500 percent last year from 2004 -- from $2 million to $52 million, Cunningham said.
While some criticize China for taking away textile and furniture jobs, Cunningham points to the significance of Chinese PC-maker Lenovo's recent purchase of the PC division of IBM. It was the first major acquisition for a Chinese company in the United States. And it kept about 1,800 jobs in the Triangle.
Signs that the state doesn't want to be left behind in building ties with China are cropping up, too. In public schools from Chapel Hill to Charlotte, parents are enrolling their children in immersion programs that teach half or more of the classes in Chinese.
John Wei, a Cary resident since 1982 and a leader in the Chinese-American community, said he has nourished a dream for a China center since the early 1990s.
Wei lobbied for a center after former Gov. Jim Hunt led a delegation to China in 1998. N.C. State University officials discussed a center modeled after the N.C. Japan Center, which Hunt established in the early 1980s. The idea generated excitement in other business and political circles, too.
But talk often bubbled up, then fizzled out. The problem: no money.
Enter L. Duane Long, a white man who has adopted the Chinese last name that means "Dragon."
An entrepreneur and former chairman of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, Long came across Wei's dream for a China center in a profile of the Chinese-American immigrant on a UNC-TV Web site. He sent Wei an e-mail message about six months ago to tell him he would like to help him reach that dream.
"I think it's our destiny," said Long, who is CEO of Longistics, a Raleigh-based company that operates a foreign trade zone near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Long is donating more than $30,000 and 5,000 square feet of office space for the China center at his company's headquarters. He and Wei hope to hire a part-time staff to run programs that promote economic, cultural and educational exchanges between North Carolina and China.
Long, Wei and a team of Chinese-American volunteers are working out the details.
They might follow the framework of NCSU's Japan Center, which offers language classes, sponsors an annual trade conference, provides Japanese translations of the state driver's handbook and gives cultural briefings for American executives.
Another model they have examined is the University of Minnesota China Center, which hosts Chinese officials and business leaders for a week to six months in leadership training programs. The programs allow Chinese leaders to tour or train at companies, such as 3M, Cargill and Medtronic. It also gives American business executives and ordinary residents opportunities to interact and practice language skills.
"If you want to do business, you have to have an understanding of culture," said Hong Yang, a former NCSU chemistry professor and director of the Minnesota China Center since 2000.
His center gives Americans tips on Chinese customs. For instance, it is more polite to hand someone a business card with two hands. It also offers guidance on navigating more complicated matters, such as China's still young intellectual property laws.
For many Triangle Chinese-Americans, the opening of the center is doubly significant.
It offers them a way to give back to the two countries they call home. Many have friends or family members who have risen in government ranks in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and who they think can benefit from more exposure to American practices.
"It's an opportunity to be better integrated into the mainstream American society," said Lian Xie, an NCSU professor and the center's future executive director.