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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

China’s Growing Role in Michigan

June 14, 2013

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! Coming to the Motor City—Detroit—as well as the rest of the state that put the world on wheels.

This is good news for the automotive community that has been repeatedly pummeled by the hollowing out of American domestic manufacturing. The biggest always fall first—and hardest—during any recession. After housing and construction, the auto industry followed leading the nation into massive unemployment during the economic decline of 2008.

Why have the Chinese selected Michigan as a destination for business, cultural and educational investment? Quite simply, the state is ripe for rolling out the welcome mat on many levels.

First, our business-friendly Governor—Rick Snyder—has traveled to China, with a third trip planned for this Fall. He hopes to build the win-win relationships with China that grow jobs. As he likes to say: “Michigan is open for business and warmly welcomes you.”

Governor Snyder is seeking foreign direct investment in our state and wants to export Michigan agricultural products, technology know-how, and other goods and services around the globe. He understands that Michigan is two beautiful peninsulas—not simply an island—in a global, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move effortlessly.

According to Michael A. Finney, the President and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC-, “Michigan’s business community now includes more than 50 major Chinese companies that have invested more than $1 billion in our state and growing.”

At a recent meeting in Detroit, Chinese Consul General Zhao Weiping said, “Michigan has many ingredients: Economic, social, cultural and educational that make it attractive to Chinese investors and, I suspect as the relationship matures, the investments and job creation will only continue to grow.”

It was just a few, short years ago that General Motors and Chrysler Corporation were humbled into bankruptcy, surviving only through massive cash infusions courtesy of American taxpayers. Today, the auto industry is in the throes of yet another comeback, and the roar is now restored to the Motor City.

“As a result of U.S. automotive investment in China, these past few decades have seen China emerge as a major player in production. Now Chinese investors continue to see the unique opportunities in the Detroit region; leaner and meaner…remains the brain center of advanced manufacturing, design and technology,” said Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “As the epicenter of the global automotive industry, we welcome Chinese and other foreign direct investment to our region.” (

“There is more technology in today’s car than there is in an iPad, tablet, laptop and iPhone combined,” says David Cole, Chairman of AutoHarvest and Chairman Emeritus for The Center for Automotive Research (

“Many successful Chinese auto suppliers, including Nexteer, Yanfeng USA, Henglong, and ZYNP International have established operations in Michigan and are creating jobs for our community,” says Jerry Xu, President, Detroit Chinese Business Association (

The New York Times has taken notice of the resurgence of both the U.S. auto industry and the Chinese automakers establishing a beachhead in Detroit:

Global auto technology and talent are clustered in Michigan, including over 15,000 Mandarin-speaking engineers. Opportunity abounds. John McElory, a global auto expert and president of Blue Sky Productions (, understands this well: “The Chinese are coming to Michigan because when they look around they don’t see shuttered factories, they see nothing but opportunity.”

Michael Dunne (, a leading expert on China’s auto industry and author of American Wheels, Chinese Roads: The Story of General Motors GM in China (, observed, “The Chinese are bringing new money into the State of Michigan. Thirty years ago China showed signs of potential but had no capital. Today, the situation seems almost reversed. The Chinese are cash-rich and Michigan is seen as a place with great potential thanks to the strong design and engineering talent.”

Terra cotta warriors Xian, China

After decades—if not centuries—of looking inward, the Chinese are spreading their wings. Xi Jinping, China’s President and Communist Party leader, speaks of, “The China Dream, The People’s Dream.” Part of this dream entails expanding its economic reach and soft power to every corner of the globe.

What many in the West are discovering is that when we speak of building bridges with China economically, culturally and educationally, these bridges run both ways. “This reality creates opportunities on both sides of the ocean,” said Lisa Grey, President of the Chinese Association of Greater Detroit (

Making the Chinese—and Chinese Business—Feel Welcome

Michigan’s new Governor and his Economic Development Corporation ( team have concentrated on getting our state’s business fundamentals correct in order to attract business investment to Michigan.

“Michigan made the mistake of being less than welcoming to Japanese businesses in the 70’s and 80’s. We will not make the same mistake with the Chinese,” says Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who has traveled several times to China (

“Yet, it is beyond business. It is creating an environment where foreign investment is wanted, nurtured, and appreciated. These ‘soft’ attributes make the Great Lakes State of Michigan a wonderful place for our Chinese colleagues to live, work, invest, send their children to school, recreate and raise their family,” declared Sook Wilkinson, Ph.D. and Chairperson, Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission (MAPAAC:

Our Midwest charm, as President Xi experienced during his 1980s U.S. visit, mirrors what the Chinese value most: Family and hard work. Besides being the automotive “brain capitol” of the world, Michigan has much that the rising middle class and newly wealthy Chinese want and need: From the clean, pristine environment to our abundant, wholesome food crop, clean technology and world-class educational opportunities.

Telling the ‘Pure Michigan’ Story

Michigan is getting more aggressive in telling its story on the global stage. Michigan State University Professor Hairong Li and I teamed up to post Michigan’s award-winning promotional campaign, Pure Michigan onto Chinese social media websites as a way to communicate to ordinary Chinese people about everything that Michigan has to offer. Koralo Chen is helping tap the Chinese tourism market by publishing a, Pure Michigan picture book written in both Mandarin and English ( The pristine beauty of our state leaps from each page.

Now, The Henry Ford ( and Shanghai Auto Museums ( are collaborating to strengthen relations and build a new bridge between the cultures of our two countries.

Shanghai skyline– was a rice paddy less than 25 years ago

I was pleased to serve as a China consultant, helping produce an Emmy award-winning, two hour CBS-TV documentary hosted by Carol Cain that shows the historical and growing ties between Michigan and China: Building Bridges – From the Great Lakes to the Great Wall (see links below)

Michigan’s universities—some of the best in the world—are now home to thousands of Chinese students. And, as Chinese families visit their children in Michigan, they have the opportunity to discover for themselves the bounty that Michigan has to offer. The University of Michigan’s history with China dates back more than a century to when then U-M President James Angell, in his capacity as U.S. minister to China during the 1880s, visited that country to help forge treaties.

U-M’s strategic, global partnership with the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University—the UM-SJTU Joint Institute—teaches mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, and offers dual degrees to successful students. The Dean of the Joint Institute, Dr. Jun Ni, believes the Institute is training many of the Chinese and American leaders of tomorrow (

The University of Michigan Confucius Institute ( is the only chapter from the more than 300 institutes around the world, that focuses on Chinese Culture in partnership with the Center for Chinese Studies (, enriching our state.

T-shirt reads “Michigan” in Chinese

Former United Automobile Workers Union President and Michigan resident Leonard Woodcock was chosen by President Jimmy Carter to serve as an envoy to China in 1977. Woodcock served as ambassador to China in 1979–80.

Today, the Ambassador Leonard Woodcock Legacy Center is located at Oakland University in Michigan. “The Woodcock Legacy provides support to education, business and government leaders in the area and facilitates cross cultural exchanges between the U.S. and China, the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century”, said Mel Gilroy, Co-Chairman of the Woodcock Legacy.

Michigan State University (MSU) (, “has enjoyed a long history with China and has benefitted fantastically from the recent growth in Chinese student enrollment. About 12% of MSU’s freshman class for fall 2013 will come from China and the value to the campus should be measured with a wide lens. The benefits to the campus include the obvious economic impact but, perhaps more importantly, the impact on the number of lives transformed by the interactions across cultures,” said Peter Briggs, Director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at MSU.

At my urging, Oakland County’s Executive Brooks Patterson called for the teaching of Chinese language, history and culture in all Oakland County schools to help prepare students for the flattened, global planet they will inherit. It has also made Oakland County an economic magnet for Chinese investment.

Chinese is spreading across Michigan’s schools ( Dr. Michael Shibler, Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools (, one of Michigan’s top public school districts, established a Chinese student exchange to prepare its students for a global economy saying, “This program, along with Rockford’s Mandarin language course opportunities, will promote a cooperative and mutual understanding between the young people of the two most influential nations of the 21st Century.”

Welcome To Pure Michigan

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel sums it up well: “There is not a better place for business and life than in Michigan. Check us out and you will make Macomb your home” (

We are a Midwest state with affordable commercial and residential property, business friendly governments, a strong work ethic, active Chinese social, professional, and business organizations and with a pristine environment and more public golf courses than anywhere in the country. With the longest freshwater coastline of any political subdivision in the world, Michigan provides an enriching, culturally-sensitive community and a strong, affordable, educational system in which to live, work and play.

Michiganders know, and the Chinese are fast discovering, that Michigan is the place to be.

Note: The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is planning a, “China Trade Mission 2013” to Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing from Sept. 3-13. Cost is $5,900 for Michigan companies to participate, which includes travel, hotels and customized business appointments, among other services. Some businesses are eligible for a 50 percent reimbursement of the fee. Contact is Weiwei Lu at or 517-335-1646.

See Michigan On China’s Social Media:

Links to Building Bridges Vimeo links:

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute Board of Advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation International Advisory Board. He is also a former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools, and former President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL. He is currently a U.S./China business and educational consultant. He can be reached at

June 13, 2013 · Filed under Tom Watkins

30 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jerry wilson // Jun 14, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Tom, nicely written outtake into this important issue. Michigan will never rebound on its own. China is a huge opportunity and a market ready made for Pure Michigan. Let’s hope our leaders continue to press the pedal on reaching out

  • 2 Billie // Jun 14, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Tom, as usual the article is well informed and written well. The infiltration of Chinese business into Michigan economy will be fruitful in the long run. The current governor has taken strides to improve the economy. Michigan is a state that is promising for global investment – and open to new ideas

  • 3 jerry shashing // Jun 14, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Mr Watkins tells a most important story. China is a friend and can do much to help as Michigan as Detroit can help with much in China. More educating of people is vital to make that happen.

  • 4 TIPLady // Jun 14, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    Great Article Tom,

    It looks e people are finally listening to your sage advice about the value of a good relationship with China. Not just for Michigan but for the United States as well.

    Thanks for being an excellent voice for oening our eyes to China as a very worthwhile partner. I can hardly wait for my grandson to start learning to speak Cinese! BRAVO TOM!!

  • 5 tom White // Jun 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    No one gets China like Tom Watkins! What can we do to make sure others understand?

  • 6 KP CHEN // Jun 16, 2013 at 9:52 am

    In Tom’s analysis, we see both the linguistic and the graphic … one can sense the elements of both 19th century and 21-century.

    It is not about politics or about economy … it brings us back to an old-age political economy where things are more or less dignified and as an integral totality.

    The potential of Michigan may not only be limited in her automotive engineering capabilities … the difficult face and future of her combined new humanism is something both very heart warming and heart nerving.

  • 7 Andy Yen // Jun 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Tom is a strong advocate in improving relations between Michigan and China. He continues to find new and creative ways to build bridges between the two countries.

  • 8 Jon // Jun 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Good article Tom. Michigan needs to pull investors in from everywhere in the world to truly turn around our economy and right now China has the money and ideas to help spur our economy on for both our benefits. I agree the Chinese language and Spanish language should be taught in our schools to help us in the global market place.

  • 9 KP CHEN // Jun 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Slow, difficult and yet solid sequence of steps, maybe much better than the earlier dotcoms and others hypes.

    Thank you Tom for all the difficult trials and early attempts and untiring infantile incubation.

    Many tears … and maybe still have more to come.

  • 10 john hendrickson // Jul 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    the chinese will bail you out (not your kids) huh?

    A self fulfilling prophecy. They will be running the town too locally and from china.

    So by building less using denizens and selling out for loans, living nicecly i see by you picture, you intend to win in the short term.

    Well? I don’t wish you luck. You sound like another bailout coming down the pipe tomorrow.

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