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Foreign Policy

As China’s Influence Grows, So Does the Need for Greater Understanding

Dec 17 , 2012

As China continues to play a more prominent role in the international community, businesses must adapt to changes in an increasingly connected, globalized world. To do so, a greater understanding of China’s history, culture and language are necessary.

President Obama could catapult America forward in his State of the Union address by calling for the teaching of Chinese in all our schools.

Radical? Of course. Yet this initiative would help place States that adopt this call to action on the global map, making them an economic magnet for Chinese foreign direct investment and help to prepare their children for a hyper-competitive economy where ideas and jobs now move effortlessly across the globe.

Most Americans know we elected our president on November 6th. Yet few know the Chinese power elite selected their new leader, Xi Jinping a few days later.

We would be wise to learn more about China or as they have called themselves dating back thousands of years, Zhongguo—the “Middle Kingdom.”

While China and America may have two disparate cultures, our relationship with China will grow increasingly complex and critical in the future. How we manage this relationship will not only impact the people of ours respective countries, but all humanity. Moving forward, all major global issues will intersect at the corner of America and China.

Certainly China has a series of serious challenges and pressures internally and externally that it must address as the 21st century matures. Fueled with 1.3 billion people and a keen desire to regain the top perch it held throughout most of history, China is once again a nation on the move.

However, what happens in China will not stay in China and we have work to do as a nation if we wish to maintain the American Dream. As global citizens, we behave more like country bumpkins and need to step up our game if we are going to both compete and collaborate on the world stage. Too few Americans are globally literate – not understanding the history and culture of other countries or any language other than English.

The World Is Rapidly Changing

The meteoric rise of China has seen Mandarin enter the universal league of languages. While a few American schools and universities offer some level of Mandarin Chinese, it is not enough.

Only a few short years ago, English, Spanish and French were the predominate languages.  Most American school systems offer these languages with a smattering of German, Latin, and even Ancient Greek. However, few offer introductory Chinese, let alone advanced Chinese.

In 2006 at my suggestion, Oakland County, Michigan’s County Executive, Brooks Patterson, called for the teaching of Chinese in all Oakland County Schools in his State of the County address. Now, many Oakland County Schools have adopted the County Executive’s call and added some level of Chinese instruction to their curriculum.

The County Executive understands that the Chinese are going to invest trillions of dollars around the global in the coming decade and people and investments go where they are welcome and stay where they are appreciated.

Michigan’s new Governor Snyder has traveled to China twice in his first two years in office attempting to build the “guanxi”/relationships that will assure China’s rise does not come at Michigan’s demise.

These leaders understand that building two-way bridges with China will give our children and state a competitive advantage going forward. They are planting seeds of change that will benefit our communities.

Learn Chinese—A Call To Action

While learning any language is valuable, knowledge of Chinese will be invaluable in the future. Mandarin is becoming synonymous with the language of business and will accelerate in the future.

If you know Mandarin, you are able to communicate with approximately 2 billion people in the world. Today, far too few American students lack the language skills necessary to perform on a global stage.

The reluctance of policymakers to grasp the importance of China and the Chinese language is a metaphor for a much wider problem: our sheer lack of knowledge about all things Asia and in particular – China. This is exacerbated by our failure to come to grips with just how much China will continue to change the world, transforming our lives right here in the United States.

Many argue that China will stumble and fall, proclaiming America an “exceptional” country – as if we can defy the gravitational pull of a rising-China. America is, of course, a great country and will remain so. Yet, we would be foolish to ignore reality, only seeing China through the rearview mirror. The world has changed and we need to step up our game. Any “reinvention” will require a deeper knowledge of China and its language.

If we wish to collaborate and compete on the global stage as the 21st century unfolds, we must adapt to a new reality. Learning about China and learning Mandarin would be a sensible place to start.

Clearly this is a radical idea. Yet, we must be bold, creative, and innovative in order to collaborate, compete and excel on the global stage. The China wave will continue to roll upon our shores. We can do nothing and be swamped or learn to surf and ride the wave.

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute board of advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation international advisory board.  He is the former state superintendent of schools and is currently a U.S./China business and educational consultant.


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