Talk about trade with China, and you're usually talking widgets, crops — things that can be touched. But millions of hours of labor...

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Talk about trade with China, and you’re usually talking widgets, crops — things that can be touched. But millions of hours of labor that U.S. workers perform for Chinese customers also add to the tally. Since they can’t be counted by customs agents standing at a border, services are reported by companies through surveys. At about $6 billion a year, services make up nearly 20 percent of the $34 billion the U.S. exports to China annually.

China ranks second in number of foreign students studying in the state, after South Korea. Legal services also are a significant export.

And Seattle is home to two of the nation’s largest architecture firms, Mulvanny G2 and Callison Architecture, which are designing shopping malls, office towers and apartment blocks in China.

A new breed of young Chinese executives want world-class buildings and cutting-edge design. And they’re coming to the U.S., and Seattle in particular, for creative ideas.

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“They are well educated and well traveled and have a vision of what their projects should be,” said Paul Makowicki, a principal at Callison. “They’ve seen the great projects around the world.”

It’s a big shift from 10 years ago, he says.

Today, “Chinese clients really pay attention to the overall aesthetic result,” said Ming Zhang, a senior partner at Mulvanny G2. “They want quite a lot of ‘wow’ effect.”

Other industries are coming for U.S. expertise, too, from power plants to environmental technology, both strong suits of the Northwest.

In Shanghai, one Callison project spans the equivalent of four downtown Seattle blocks and includes 3 million square feet of space — the equivalent of two Bank of America Towers, Seattle’s tallest skyscraper.

There are two 50-story office towers, two 34-story residence towers and seven stories of retail. It’s already leased, Makowicki says.

The sales bring new employees, but also more work, as the firms’ reputations grow.

Both companies have hired employees here and in China. Callison, which has been working in China for 15 years, set up an office in Shanghai 18 months ago with two people. It now has five there. In the U.S., the number of people working on Chinese projects has grown by a quarter to about 25. Revenue totaled $82.5 million last year, and about 15 percent came from China.

Mulvanny G2 has 14 people in China, up from three a few years ago. “We just expanded our office from a representative office to a design-consulting company,” Zhang said.

Chinese projects have helped them win work in the U.S. “We are now being sought out domestically because of what we’ve learned in China,” Makowicki said.

Zhang says Mulvanny G2 is designing the new Redmond City Hall because the client saw some of its work in China. “They think we are the right type of architect.”