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Chinese Chrysler?

Aug 15, 2017

Yesterday morning I heard someone on an AM radio station say he had heard a crazy notion that Chrysler might be sold to the Chinese.

It was clear from his tone that he believed this was never going to happen.

Now, after a lifetime of covering the news, here’s something I’ve learned about business and politics. Whenever the movers and shakers start saying something can’t possibly happen, that usually means it most certainly could. Often it means that it is inevitable.

And sometimes, it even means that it’s happened already.

Sure enough, I arose from my bed of nails this morning to find that the main headline in the Detroit Free Press said Why Fiat Chrysler could turn to Chinese.

It seems that at least one Chinese firm has made a bid to buy what is, after all, now just a division of the Italian automaker Fiat.

It’s clear there is at least a serious possibility of this, because instead of denying the rumor, both Chrysler and the main Chinese suspect, Guangzhou Auto, declined comment.

This story broke, by the way, the very day President Trump ordered a massive investigation into possible intellectual property theft by China, with a strong hint of trade sanctions to come, an echo of the “America First” rhetoric that helped get him elected.

What struck me, however, was to what extent Trump, and to some extent most of us, are still stuck in a world that no longer exists.

Last week, I talked with a bright young mechanical engineering graduate who was looking at job offers from, Nissan, Ford and Chrysler, and wanted my advice. I told him I didn’t know a camshaft from a crankshaft, but if he wanted a guarantee of a long-term stable corporate environment, Chrysler wasn’t it.

The company has survived two near-death experiences, and we don’t know how many more it can endure. Yesterday, I started to tell someone that when I was a teenager in the 1960s, a nuclear war would have seemed more likely than a Chinese takeover of the Chrysler Corporation.

Then I realized that was wrong. We thought about nuclear war all the time. Nobody ever imagined a Chinese takeover of Chrysler. A Martian takeover would have seemed more likely. We didn’t even have diplomatic relations with what we then called “Red China.”

Chinese Communists were then fanatical primitive Marxists who were opposed to private cars. Well, these days their Communists wear business suits and believe in becoming as rich as possible. Most Americans today buy cars made by a foreign-owned manufacturer.

Most of those cars are made here, in plants where the workers have repeatedly indicated they want nothing to do with the United Auto Workers union.

So the Big Three of my childhood are now, at best, the Detroit Three. Even that is a misnomer, but “Detroit Two and Turin One” doesn’t really trip off the tongue.

I’m not sure if there even is a purely domestic car anymore. I also don’t think a Chinese firm buying Chrysler would necessarily be bad. They seem to have improved Volvo, and would probably preserve far more jobs than a merger with General Motors.

When it comes to the automotive industry, the planet is fast becoming one world. Faster, to be sure, than many of us, including our leaders, realize.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.