Governor Snyder, Going to China

Aug 24, 2011

The other day, Gov. Rick Snyder’s office announced he would be going to China next month. Actually, he will be going to both China and Japan, on a whirlwind, week-long trip that will begin with his attending a trade association meeting in Tokyo.

This will be a high-powered trip. Along with him, the governor will be taking Mike Finney, the director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, known as MEDC; the state agriculture director, and four other economic development officials.

The reason for the trip, the governor’s communications director said, was to talk about why investment in Michigan is a good idea, and also to promote our state’s farm products.

Politicians often get criticized for taking junkets abroad -- sometimes rightly so. But not only is this trip a good idea, it is terribly necessary and way overdue.  In Toledo, just to our south, Chinese businessmen have spent millions to buy land along the Maumee riverfront, which they plan to develop for a variety of uses.

They have also bought a restaurant and other properties there. Chinese executives are buying homes in Toledo and enrolling their children in the schools. But in Michigan, nothing.

A good part of the blame belongs to former Governor Jennifer Granholm and her Democrats, who made political points by bashing the Chinese, but who lost opportunities to attract investment. Granholm, who led no fewer than thirteen state trade missions overseas, never visited China.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the former governor defended that record, saying, essentially, that she only went on trade missions when there was an immediate opportunity to close a deal.

Those who know anything about doing business with the Chinese will tell you that is a profoundly ignorant statement. If you don’t carefully cultivate people first, there will never be any deal to close. Tom Watkins, a Democrat himself, is a former state superintendent of schools. Today, he has evolved into a business and education  consultant who specializes in building bridges to China.

“Doing business in China is not your typical one-night stand,“ he told me yesterday. “You have to build relationships, what the Chinese call ‘guanxi’ gradually, over the long haul.” Watkins told me that the Chinese expect to meet with top government leaders in any area where they are thinking about doing business. “Michigan has been missing in action in this area,” he says. To have chosen not to cultivate the world’s fastest growing economy was, he believes, horrifyingly short-sighted.

Not surprisingly, Watkins is very supportive of Governor Snyder’s trip. However, he cautions, don’t expect Snyder to come back with an announcement that a major Chinese factory is coming to Flint. Again, as the ancient saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is the beginning.

Watkins is not a shill for the Chinese. He has been critical of their human rights record, and sometimes of our government’s willingness to look the other way. But he isn’t critical of their economic growth, which is far higher than our own. Soon, China will be the world’s second largest market for consumer goods.

For now, he says, “The Chinese are sitting on billions, looking for places to invest.” Hopefully, some will be planted here.