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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Michigan/China Alliance: Building Bridges from the Great Lakes to the Great Wall

April 27, 2018 

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform. Its opening up to the world created an economic miracle for that giant country and its people. That miracle also benefited the Great Lake State of Michigan.

The State of Michigan is celebrating this special relationship and has designated May 6-9 as “Michigan/China Week.” The cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids will be holding special celebrations. Government and business delegations from six of Michigan’s partner provinces in China—Guangdong, Sichuan, Hebei, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang— will travel to Michigan to attend this bilateral exchange.

During Michigan China Week, there will be celebrations of Michigan’s relationships with our partners in China and the state will lay a foundation for continuing collaboration between Michigan and important regions of China. This will bode well for creating jobs and economic investment in the Great Lake State.

The events are being organized by the Michigan-China Innovation Center.  Check out the Centers website for more information about upcoming events:

Governor Snyder has done more to build this strategic and economically beneficial relationship with China than all of his predecessors combined. Snyder understands that doing business in China is not the equivalent of a one-night stand. It takes time to develop the “guanxi”—the relationships—necessary to make and seal deals. He understands that knowing, respecting and appreciating the history, customs, and culture of China goes a long way in cementing relationships and bringing investment and jobs to Michigan.

We are fortunate to have an exceptional relationship with the Chinese Consul General’s office In Chicago.  Consul General Hong Li states, “Governor Snyder attaches high importance to the cooperation between Michigan and China and has gone to great lengths to promote Michigan’s industries and business environment.” He continues, “He once told me that cooperation with China should become common sense for people in Michigan. I am very lucky to have such a great partner and believe that with his vision and leadership, Michigan’s friendly cooperation with China will enjoy greater development and more concrete results.”

We need to ensure that this relationship continues.  It is important—regardless of whom occupies the governor’s office—that this important relationship survives and thrives. To allow it to backslide would be a great disservice.

What has transpired over China’s 5,000 year history is nothing short of amazing, but the last 40 years have been truly remarkable and are universally acknowledged as a stunning reversal of fortune for China.  As Deng Xiaoping, China’s post-Mao leader, said: “We must catch up with the times, and this is the objective of our reforms.”

In his 2018 New Year message, China’s President Xi Jinping said that continued reform and opening-up is the only way for China to modernize and continue its development progress in realizing the Chinese Dream. “With the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening-up policy as a turning point, we shall cut paths through mountains and build bridges across rivers, overcome all difficulties and carry reform through to the end,” Xi said.

Clearly, China Has Caught Up – and Then Some

Today, decades after China’s leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, China has evolved into one of the world’s largest trading partners and economies. In essence, China bypassed its own Industrial Revolution and “fast-forwarded” directly, with all of the concomitant problems of a modern nation (pollution, social injustice and inequality), all while bringing seismic economic and political shifts to its people and culture.

In the nearly 30 years I have been traveling to China, there is no question that the lives of the average Chinese have improved remarkably. From the drab sameness of Mao-era gray suits to today’s designer jeans and t-shirts with tears in them being worn by young, fashion-forward Chinese. From “no choice” to now being able to afford to buy the latest fashions, even these changes signal progressive wealth in China. Seeing China then and now is as if a movie started in black and white and suddenly switched to Technicolor with surround sound – it is that remarkable and dramatic.

The Chinese continue to follow the axiom set by former leader Deng Xiaoping: “He does not care if it is a white cat or a black cat – as long as the cat can catch mice.” This level of pragmatism and willingness to do what is necessary to assure continued growth and development— to improve the lives of average citizens— is palpable today.

Dividends for Michigan Citizens

Michigan/Chinese ties are deep. The University of Michigan (UofM) has had a long, amazing history with China that dates back as far as 1880, when President James Angell took temporary leave from the university to serve as U.S. minister to China.  

Oakland University is home to the Woodcock Legacy, co-chaired by Mel Gilroy, which promotes and facilitates positive U.S.-China relations. They support partnerships and exchanges between government, business, education and the arts in China and throughout the United States. Leonard Woodcock was the president of the UAW and the first US ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

Local Ambassadors

Michigan is blessed with an active Chinese/Asian-American community that adds value, contributes greatly to our state and makes a huge difference to the fabric of our communities. Some of the organizations include: The Detroit Chinese Business Association (, the Chinese Association of Greater Detroit (,

The Michigan/US/China Exchange Center (, The National Association of Asian American Professionals, Detroit (, the Association of Chinese Americans (, and the Counsel of Asian-Pacific Americans (

Michigan has one of the richest talent pools in the country. Our high-tech workforce is the fourth largest in the country with more than 87,000 engineers, 70,000 R&D professionals, and 75,000 skilled trades’ people. Michigan employers can connect with this talent pool through statewide programs that help employers find skilled workers, retrain current workers and provide training and education.

Michigan is open for business and is more interested in building win-win bridges than erecting barriers or walls.

Just last year, Governor Snyder celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Michigan-Sichuan Sister State/Provencal agreement during the fourth full day of his China Trade mission.  He was working on extending Michigan-China ties and attracting investment to further strengthen the friendly cooperation and economic activity between the people of Michigan and Sichuan.

Governor Snyder meeting with Chinese officials

Snyder was joined by Sichuan Governor Yin Li and other leaders in government, business and education during the anniversary celebration held in Chengdu, China. The agreement, originally signed by Gov. William Milliken in 1982 and renewed by Gov. James Blanchard in 1984, was again renewed by Snyder in 2012.

I took great pride in encouraging Governor Snyder to rekindle that relationship.  To jump-start that important connection, I personally delivered a letter to the Governor of Sichuan in 2011 on behalf of Gov. Snyder.

In 1982, Sichuan was an economic backwater in a nation just beginning to shake off the shackles of the Cultural Revolution and open itself up to the world. Today, Sichuan, Chengdu, and China have morphed into vibrant incubators of manufacturing vitality and innovation.  Governor Snyder can now state with pride, “Our agreement represents a mutual commitment to continue our positive relationship and further promote the economic and cultural development of our two regions.”  How is this longstanding relationship paying off for the Great Lake State?

According to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in 2016, Michigan ranked number two in the nation for the number of investment projects from China. Michigan also ranks number three in the nation for the number of jobs created by Chinese investment and was fourth in the nation in total Chinese capital investment.  Between January 2010 and July 2017, Michigan received $1.1 billion in new business investment from China, creating 5,475 jobs for Michigan residents – an ROI (return on investment) that has created numerous benefits for the people of the Great Lakes State.

Governor Snyder understands that building bridges is a far smarter strategy than erecting walls. Michigan can be proud of this longstanding relationship and we look forward to years of friendship and collaboration that will benefit our citizens.

Michigan has done well in assuring China’s rise did not come at our demise. We could also learn from the Chinese who continue to make a massive investment in education and infrastructure. This investment guarantees to make them stronger as a nation even while Michigan – and America as a whole – disinvests in these same areas.

Cities, states and nations that invest in their people will thrive. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that investing in talent, knowledge and skills for your citizens will have a massive payoff as the 21st century unfolds.

The Next 40 Years

There are some very big problems to confront between our two nations. President Trump’s unique diplomatic skills, the pending trade war, the tensions in North Korea and China’s continued rise have strained the sensitive balance between our two countries. This balance is strained because of the lack of mutual trust. China and the United States have built a strong working relationship over the past 40 years and have been more successful than the world would have anticipated when we began with ping-pong diplomacy 40 years ago.

As the 21st century unfolds, China and the United States will devote much effort to not falling into the Thucydides Trap.

The U.S. economy remains number one and China is number two in the global economic rankings. Some people in China believe that the U.S. is seeking to hold back China’s rise and even to disrupt that rise to prevent competition from a rising power. When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result— it must be our collective goal to ensure that we do not perpetuate this inevitability. At the national level, we must rely on our respective presidents to guide this fragile relationship, while at the subnational level we must continue to build cultural, scientific, educational and business “win-win” ties that enable peace and prosperity to prevail.

Chinese Consul General – Chicago, Hong Lei and author, Tom Watkins

It is important that we find ways to connect with China on a people-to-people level as the 21st century unfolds. I am proud to serve on the Tai Initiative board of directors. The Tai Initiative is a non-profit organization that supports and encourages the development of trusting communication between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China by networking and encouraging subnational level relationships.  The subnational level comprises that segment of the relationship formed by states/provinces, cities, schools, universities, community colleges businesses and the civil sector. (

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for nearly four decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He serves on the Michigan-China Innovation Center Advisory Board and is an adviser to the Detroit Chinese Business Association. Follow him on twitter@tdwatkins88. Follow Watkins on Twitter@tdwatkins88


April 26, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

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