Re-examining the Michigan-China Relationship

By on September 18th, 2011

Cover Story

Re-Examining the Michigan-China Relationship

Weekly Updateby Fred Miller
September 18, 2011

Trade with China has often been a divisive issue — understandably so, because the benefits to Michigan have been to a select few while the losses have been felt by too many. To most Michigan residents, trade with China has meant exporting good paying Michigan jobs and importing products made by low-wage Chinese workers. That’s why Governor Snyder’s trip to China presents an excellent opportunity to examine the Michigan-China dynamic of the past, present, and future.

While the forces shaping the global economy may be beyond our control, Michigan residents deserve more than just lectures and editorializing on the theoretical value of the globalization and free trade. Instead, we need to change the discussion by demonstrating to the people of Michigan the value of engagement with China in real, practical terms. That means creating real jobs for real people here by both expanding the export of Michigan products and attracting foreign investment to Michigan.

Gov. Snyder deserves kudos for including China in his first trade mission. We hope that it will represent the moment where Michiganders can realize that without waving the white flag in the fight for fair trade, Michigan can gain by showing our state flag abroad, spotlighting Michigan products for export and building relationships that can result in foreign economic investment here. The governor leading the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) delegation will provide visibility for Michigan and Michigan products in a way that only a governor can. But there should be no illusion that a single visit can cure the trade problems we have experienced.

The stated MEDC mission is to promote Michigan agricultural exports and the value of Chinese investment in Michigan. Increasing exports is vital and there are many opportunities beyond agriculture to advance in the future. While winning investments in Michigan will no doubt require a longer, sustained effort to build relationships, making that commitment can potentially result in even greater rewards.

And Michigan’s success will require more than the governor’s involvement. From Monroe to Marquette we need to develop ambassadors and hosts reaching out with our products and inviting foreign governments, companies and people to visit us, making Michigan communities destination points for Chinese travelers as well as investments.

Fortunately, if the governor is prepared to commit to this kind of effort, he can collaborate with existing work in Southeastern Michigan to accelerate progress. Since 2009 the Macomb Cultural and Educational Partnership (MCEP) has worked on a nonpartisan basis with Macomb County schools, local and county government, business and business organizations that want to engage in building global relationships and trade. Our focus is to establish friendship and cooperation between Macomb County and cities and counties in the People’s Republic of China with the goal of spurring job growth and economic development both locally and throughout the state.

MCEP efforts have already helped secure Chinese investments and job creation in Michigan. In March, Yanfeng Visteon, one of China’s largest auto parts suppliers, announced plans to open its North American R&D headquarters in Harrison Township, creating 100 jobs. This came after an MCEP economic trade mission helped develop connections between Harrison Township officials and Yanfeng representatives.

In addition to sparking interest among business leaders, the governor’s visit can be successful if it leads to even greater opportunities for Michigan and Chinese students to broaden their horizons to better understand each other’s cultures. MCEP encourages providing Michigan students with educational opportunities to help prepare them to compete and win in the new global economy.

These opportunities should be broadly available, not just for an elite few. In Macomb County, eight school districts currently offer Mandarin language classes. MCEP has already found great reward in sparking the imagination of students in Macomb schools and in China towards developing better understanding by arranging numerous student exchanges and opportunities for Macomb school leaders to travel to China.

After being part of an MCEP visit to China, L’Anse Creuse Schools Superintendent DiAnne Pellerin wrote, “What will our relationship be with the future China? Do we ignore her? Do we fear her? Or do we learn from her and see the opportunities that the New China presents to us.” The answer for L’Anse Creuse is a detailed three-year plan between the Macomb District and Nantong Secondary Schools in Jiangsu Province that is allowing staff and students to quickly develop relationships.

Other Macomb districts, including South Lake, Fitzgerald, Warren Woods, Center Line, and the International Academy of Macomb, have developed their own cooperative agreements with districts in China. All of these districts are following the great path that Lakeshore Schools has developed with its sister school in Beijing.

Aside from the obvious immediate value of increasing our agricultural exports to China, Michigan’s success will depend less on the immediate response to the mission by the Chinese at the arranged receptions and more on how the governor follows through when he returns home.

We would welcome closer coordination between the state and local efforts in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to help foster and support broader discussion among educators and small- to medium-sized businesses on how Michigan can best take advantage of opportunities to build better understanding and connections to the world’s second largest economy. Greater outreach and understanding of existing local efforts would help inform future state efforts and anticipate ways that our cooperative efforts could better serve Michigan.

To date, the Snyder Administration has been responsive to MCEP’s specific requests for cooperation. We’d suggest that as a follow up, the governor create an office or mechanism to serve a state clearinghouse of Michigan-China relationships and coordinate activities and outreach.

We wish the governor well as, on behalf of the 10 million people of Michigan, he takes this opportunity to present our products and the case for Michigan to the 1.3 billion people of China. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with him upon his return.

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Fred Miller is a Macomb County commissioner and president of the Macomb Cultural and Economic Partnership, which works on a nonpartisan basis with Macomb County schools, local and county government, and businesses and business organizations that want to engage in building global relationships and trade.

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