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Look to China to Revitalize Detroit

Jul 25 , 2013

Detroit, the city that put the world on wheels, has filed for bankruptcy. This once proud city has been humiliated in the world’s eye.

Tom Watkins

Detroit can learn from China about how to turn adversity into strength. China suffered through a century of humiliation to an unprecedented rise that continues today.

Wei Yuan, a Chinese scholar (1794 – 1857) attempted to combine traditional scholarly knowledge with practical experience to find workable solutions to problems of the day. In his book, Records of the Conquest, Wei writes, “Humiliation stimulates effort; when a country (city) is humiliated, its spirit will be aroused” or “To feel shame is to approach courage.”

China’s insight and leadership could help revitalize the once iconic American city.

The world should watch as China returns to its historical position of global strength. An often over-looked fact, China had the world’s largest economy in 18 of the past 20 centuries.

As China’s economy develops, Detroit—and the United States—should continue to look for areas of cooperation. In a recently released report by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, areas of cooperation such as tourism, agriculture, and investment are outlined. U.S.-China 2022: U.S.-China Economic Relations in the Next Ten Years should be mandatory reading for government and business leaders with a stake in rebuilding Detroit.

The report concludes that Beijing and Washington share the desire to “establish a pattern of secure, high-quality sustainable growth and employment for their people.”

It could be argued in the early days of the normalization of the relations between China and the United States, the China bridge was more of a one-way span in China’s favor. That certainly is not true today. Chinese investment in the U.S. is at an all-time high. According to the Heritage Foundation, total Chinese investment in the U.S. since 2005 stands at $54 billion, and is expected to grow significantly over the next decade. According to the Asia Society, the Chinese will be seeking foreign investment opportunities from between $1 trillion to $2 trillion dollars over the next decade. Detroit and America need to be aggressive about securing a chunk of this Chinese investment.

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder has set the table for attracting foreign direct investment that creates both wealth and jobs in his home state.

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

As our new immigrant and business friendly governor, Snyder likes to say: “Michigan is open for business.” Snyder has traveled to China twice as governor and has a third trip planned this fall. Investment in Detroit ought to be a priority of the governor’s up-coming China trip.

Snyder is seeking foreign direct investment in Michigan and wants to export the state’s agricultural products, technology know how and other goods and services around the globe.

As U.S.-China 2022 spells out, over the course of next decade this important economic relationship has the potential to create enormous economic opportunities and millions of jobs, as well as public good, globally.

Zhao Weiping, the Chinese Consul General of Chicago, recently 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.”

John McElory, a global auto expert and president of Blue Sky Productions, understands Detroit is a fountain of opportunity for Chinese investors: “The Chinese are coming to Michigan because when they look around they don’t see shuttered factories, they see nothing but opportunity.”

Detroit can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of humiliation.  As the Chinese sought knowledge and investment from the West, Detroit may look to the East to rise again.

Detroit and Michigan leaders should tap China’s meteoric rise, economic clout and excessive capital as a tool to revitalize a once great city.

Remember, “To feel shame is to approach courage.”

Tom Watkins has been working for more than three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the U.S. and China.  He is a U.S.-China business and education consultant.

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