If anyone needs proof of foreign confidence in China's economy after Deng Xiaoping's demise, there is no need to look hard. Observe how the United States and France tried to outdo each other in beating the drum for their investors and exporters this week in Shanghai and Beijing. About US$700 billion worth of infrastructure projects are at stake in China over the next five years, and the two countries - and many more - are hungrily eyeing the lucrative contracts. US Under-Secretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat was blunt about the fact that playing salesman was one reason for his five-day visit - three days of which were spent hard-selling in Shanghai. He handed the Chinese a list of 20 infrastructure projects worth 'tens of billions of dollars' in which US companies were interested, and as good as demanded that Beijing give a fair number of the contracts to the firms named in his list. The politician-salesman played his trump card: China's politically unsustainable trade surplus with the US, which came to $39 billion last year and accounted for 24 per cent of the total US deficit. Mr Eizenstat suggested the issue, if not resolved to Washington's satisfaction, would affect Beijing's arduous journey to the World Trade Organisation. Mr Eizenstat had a serious competitor in the French Foreign Trade Minister Yves Galland. He was pitching for French companies in areas such as energy, telecommunications, aerospace, transport, construction, environmental protection and health care - the areas in which the US official was also keen. A word or two from Mr Eizenstat or Mr Galland is not enough. US Vice-President Al Gore probably will champion the cause of US firms when he visits China this month, while France is despatching President Jacques Chirac to do his bit. He is to inaugurate France '97, the country's biggest showcase of French technology and expertise for the year in Shanghai on May 17. This is the first time in more than 10 years a French exhibition abroad is to be officially opened by a French head of state. Three more French ministers will visit China within the next few weeks to support the case for French companies. In a world of fair competition, many US and French companies, with their respective strengths, probably would be able to win a few contracts on their own merit. However, merit alone is no longer enough to win contracts. It has become fashionable for foreign politicians, from ministers to presidents, to travel to China to secure contracts for home-grown firms, and companies without endorsement of their politicians suffer a great disadvantage. There is a insidious consequence to the commercial activism by politicians: it will be increasingly difficult to draw the line between business and politics. When bilateral relations hit the rocks, companies on both sides will be passed over for contracts which they think they deserve to win on their own merit.