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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

The Pure Michigan and Tai Way

December 15, 2017 

Anyone who has glanced at these pages over the years knows I am the Chinese Paul Revere when it comes to the growth and the economic tsunami China has become over the last three decades. As the China wave continues to wash up on our shores, we have a choice: Do nothing and be swamped or learn to surf and ride the Chinese wave.

Smart leaders are “doing something” and clearly surfing sounds like a much better option than being swamped.

China punctured America’s consciousness in many ways, especially in 2008 with its spellbinding Olympics. It followed up its Olympic success becoming the second largest world economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that China will be the largest economy in the world as the 21st century unfolds, surpassing even the US.

While Governor Snyder and I do not see eye-to-eye on a number of important policy areas, he has done an exceptional job when it comes to assuring that China’s rise does not come at Michigan’s demise. His strategy has been simple and effective. Whoever follows him into the Governor’s chair would be wise to follow these two maxims:

  • Seek opportunities to export our goods and services to China.
  • Seek Chinese foreign direct investment into Michigan in ways that create economic growth and jobs for our citizens.

How is this longstanding relationship paying off for the Great Lake State? In 2016, Michigan ranked number two in the nation for a number of investment projects from China. Michigan also ranked number three in the nation for the number of jobs created by Chinese investment and number four in capital investment. Between January 2010 and July 2017, Michigan received $1.1 billion in new business investment from China that created 5,475 jobs for Michigan residents – an ROI (return on investment) that has created numerous benefits for the people of the Great Lakes State.

U.S. Department of Commerce reports: “China is the fastest growing source of foreign direct investment into the United States, and tens of thousands of jobs are being created by these companies.”

Michigan, having much of what the Chinese want and need – from automotive know-how, tourism, agriculture, exceptional universities and community colleges as well as a welcoming environment – has s become an economic magnet for Chinese investment.

The Chinese leader who followed Mao, Premier Deng Xiaoping’s coined a phrase, “Mozhe shitou guo he” or “Crossing the river by feeling for stones,” to depict how he guided China on its current path to prosperity.

Our next governor would be wise to follow the stones that Governor Snyder has laid.

Sub National Bridge Building

Clearly dealing with China is a complicated diplomatic dance. Congress and our President should and must deal with the international and national issues that arise with China over the South China Sea, North Korea’s aggressiveness, climate change, cyber-security, human rights, and theft of intellectual property.

Subnational exchanges between the U.S. and China is one of the many engines that drive the China-U.S. bilateral relationship forward”, declared Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. ,Cui Tiankai, during the 2017 U.S. National Governors Association (NGA) Summer Meeting In Rhode Island. Ambassador Cui Tiankai said, “that the expanding and deepening China-U.S. relationship is driven by many engines and economic and trade relations, as well as sub-national exchanges, are two important driving forces.”


Here at home, we at the subnational level need leaders who are willing to roll up their sleeves and seek people-to-people, win-win opportunities that build economic, cultural, scientific and educational bridges between our two countries.

One national organization doing just that is the Tai Initiative (www.taiinitiative.org). The Tai Initiative is a non-profit corporation 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 the subnational level of relationship. The subnational level comprises that segment of the relationship formed by states/provinces, cities, schools, businesses and the civil sector. The relationship between the People’s Republic of China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Relationships at the subnational level are crucial towards building the people-to-people connections that serve both nations well.

There are many local superintendents, university and community college presidents, mayors, and county executives who have taken the lead to build connections with China. At my urging over a decade ago, Oakland County Executive, L. Brooks Patterson called for the teaching of Chinese in all Oakland County Schools, making Oakland County an investment magnet for Chinese companies.

Westland Mayor Bill Wild, Mayor Mike Duggan, Macomb and Wayne County Executives, Mark Hackel and Warren Evans and others also have an oar in the water and are building lasting bridges with China.

Bill Wild, Mayor, City of Westland

Mayor Wild became an even more enthusiastic booster of finding ways to build economic, cultural and educational ties to China after his Tai-sponsored trip to China this past year. “Tom Watkins has been sounding the alarm for decades of the importance of finding ways to connect to China, one-fifth of all humanity, with thousands of years of civilization and the fastest growing world economy,” says Mayor Wild.

The mayor, who serves on the Tai Initiative Board of Advisors and was also a delegate to both the DC conference in July 2015 and the inaugural Mayors’ Delegation in March 2017, continued:  “Seeing the Chinese invest in America and Michigan over the past decade it simply makes good sense to find ways to continue working together to create jobs and investment here at home and export our goods and service to China— the Tai Initiative is an exceptional means to this end.”

Let Me Educate You

Daniel J. Phelan, Ph.D., President/CEO of Jackson (Michigan) College (www.jccmi.edu) points out, “Jackson College has been on an intentional path to advance our relationship with a number of Chinese colleges and polytechnic institutions in order to enhance the global and cultural competency of our collective students. President Phelan continues,“To provide support to our international students we created the International Student Institute (ISI) on our Central Campus, which includes a representative from the Confucius Institute in China, whose mission it is to promote and teach Chinese culture and language around the world. Jackson College, like many other community colleges, are engaged in faculty and student exchanges and ensuring that our curriculum is attentive to internationalization.”

Dr. Phelan understands we are living in a day and time where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe instantaneously. He exclaims, “I am keenly aware, as are many of my peers around our, state nation, that we have a responsibility to engage China in our significant international efforts. With over $21 trillion in economic activity and the largest population in the world, at over 1.4 billion, the United States’ colleges must prepare students for global, interconnected economies, as never before. Doing so must mean making this work an institutional priority and, as such, allocating the necessary resources to achieve vital student objectives.”

Daniel J. Phelan, Ph.D., President/CEOof Jackson College

Think Globally, Act Locally

I was recently honored to be asked to serve on the national Tai Initiative Board of Directors.

Carson Tavenner, the Executive Director of the Tai Initiative, based in Seattle, Washington had this to say about the Initiative, “There are four levels of relationship between China and America: civilizational, national, subnational, and individual. Three of these four levels experience deep admiration, cooperation, and/or respect towards one another. Why do we allow the national level alone to hone our perception of the overall health of the relationship to such a huge degree? Leaders at the subnational level have already been achieving wonderfully practical goals and making great things happen. We need to research and learn more about how these leaders worked, drawing them together from both sides of the Pacific to teach us.”

Carson and I jointly penned this article in China-US Focus on the Tai Initiative: China-U.S. Relations: Creating an Effective Relationship at the Subnational Level: https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/china-us-relations-creating-an-effective-relationship-at-the-subnational-level

At the national, subnational and – most importantly – the people-to-people level, we need to take a broad view of the world, understanding that it is much better to build bridges rather than build walls or dig moats.

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools and is a business and educational consultant in the U.S. and China. He serves on the Tai Initiative Board of Directors, is an advisor to the Michigan-China Innovation Center, Detroit Chinese Business Association, and Michigan U.S./China Exchange Center. Read more of Watkins reflection on the importance of the US/China relationship at: China-US Focus: https://www.chinausfocus.com/author/84/tom-watkins.html He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


December 14, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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