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We should be thinking a lot more about our relationship with China

Oct 19, 2017

Someone once wrote that if you keep a diary and look back at what you wrote 20 years ago, you often find the stuff you thought was peripheral actually turned out to have been the most important. For example, you may have filled pages mooning over a now-forgotten Ralph or Susie, and just noted in passing a job that began your professional career.

News is like that too.

We don’t always see what’s most important. Most of us, so far as I can tell, are so focused on the daily clown show in Washington, that we are paying little attention to tremors in our nation’s growing relationship with China.

Few realize it, but among all 50 states, Michigan is actually China’s third largest trading partner. According to China’s consul general in Chicago, trade between our state and the world’s biggest nation is worth $12 billion a year. Chinese businesses have also invested $2 billion here and created 9,000 jobs.

Yet few have noticed that China’s powerful leader, Xi Jinping, has been consolidating power and sounding a new, tougher nationalist note. In a speech earlier this week, he said China needs to guard against "erroneous" ideology, promote religion that is "Chinese in origin" and made it clear that he wants the Communist Party to be more, not less involved in people’s lives.

Tom Watkins, who just stepped down as head of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority, pointed this out to me the day the latest issue of the Economist magazine arrived, with Xi on the cover and an editorial proclaiming him “the world’s most powerful man.”

Watkins has been the state’s biggest advocate of stronger ties with China for at least a dozen years, and is once again more heavily involved there.

When I asked what he thought of Xi’s speech, he said “America needs to wake up!”

Watkins, who was also state superintendent of schools a dozen years ago, has been fascinated by China since he was in the fourth grade, and has been traveling there regularly since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He told me yesterday, "sometimes I feel like a 21st century Paul Revere" who should be running around shouting "the Chinese are coming."

He agreed that Xi’s new harder line should be of concern, but should not cause us to shy away from our companion economic superpower.

"We should be seeking ways to build bridges with China and seek better understanding," he told me.

Actually, we don’t have a choice. "Napoleon said, 'Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world,'" Watkins noted, adding that "the alarm went off about 30 years ago," and we don’t have a choice, neither in Michigan or nationally.

"The Chinese wave will continue to crash upon our shores. We can do nothing and be swamped or learn to surf and ride the wave," he said.

Watkins, who is about 60, noted that he has lived through years in which many Chinese were starving and has arrived in a world where "China is eating our lunch," and we have no choice except to figure out a way to work with it, and build the world’s most important bilateral relationship. "Think North Korea," he said.

We all have been.

But we probably should be thinking of China even more.

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.