Opinion: China opened up, Michigan benefited

Tom Watkins
A congressional advisory panel says the purchase of internet-linked devices manufactured in China leaves the United States vulnerable to security breaches that could put critical U.S. infrastructure at risk.

Forty Years ago, China opened to the world.

There is no question that the lives of average Chinese have improved remarkably since China “opened up”.  From the drab sameness of Mao-era gray suits to today’s designer lifestyle, seeing China then and now is as if a movie had begun in in black and white and suddenly switched to Technicolor with Dolby surround sound – the change is that remarkable. And dramatic. China’s achievements are not only remarkable but universally acknowledged. 

The Chinese, both its government and people, are investing in education, infrastructure, and technology – fully embracing the future. They understand that knowledge, innovation, and creativity are the drivers of 21st century currency that will propel them forward not only as individuals, but as a nation so they invest heavily in education as a poverty-alleviation tool.

China has soared. Consider this:

• 700 million people have moved from abject poverty to a Chinese middle class.

• China has become the world’s fastest growing large economy.

• Chinese students significantly outperform U.S. students on international tests.

• China is the world’s largest auto producer.

• China has become a banker to the U.S., owning more than 20 percent of our total foreign reserves or more than 3 trillion dollars

• China’s economy has been the world’s largest during 18 of the past 20 centuries and they are working hard again to regain their stature as a global power.  

Clearly Michigan has benefited from China’s coming out party. According to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, in 2016, Michigan ranked second in the nation for the number of investment projects from China. Michigan also ranks third in the nation for the number of jobs created by Chinese 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 has done more to cement the bond between China and Michigan than all his predecessors combined. Incoming Governor Whitmer understands that building bridges is a far smarter strategy than erecting walls. Her focus will be to continue to seek foreign direct investment that helps create jobs and wealth in Michigan and export our goods and services around the globe.

While it seemed easy to mine cynical votes by making China the bogeyman during past elections; the fact is, we have lost more jobs to automation and productivity than we have “shipped to China.”

All major issues in the world today intersect at the corner of Washington, DC and Beijing. How these global issues are resolved will impact the people of China, America and, indeed all of humanity. Our leaders must sit down – and with mutual respect – negotiate to reach a face-saving agreements on all sides.

The U.S./China relationship need not be a geopolitical game of see-saw – one nation down when the other is up. Rather, America needs a national strategy to invest in infrastructure, technology/AI (artificial intelligence), education and workforce development. Whining about China’s rise will not prevent our demise.

Let’s find ways to rise together. May the next 40 years be even better than the first 40.

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools (2001-05) and is a China Partner in WAY-American Schools.