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Commentary

Understanding the importance of China

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There are those with some understandable skepticism about political junkets to other countries in search of jobs. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm was forever jetting off on trade missions to Sweden or Germany, say, and then announcing with great fanfare that some company had agreed to create maybe a dozen new jobs in Michigan.

This raised a number of questions, such as, would those jobs have come here anyway? Incidentally, I’m not sure anyone ever followed up to see if the promised jobs actually happened.

On top of that, you had to wonder if the governor’s time and energy might better have been spent elsewhere.

Especially when you saw stories about a handful of new junket-generated jobs next to other stories about hundreds of domestic jobs being eliminated through plant closings or downsizings.

However, one place Granholm never went was China, probably the biggest generator of new jobs in the world, possibly because she did not wish to anger the unions here.

Well, the newly re-elected Governor Snyder is flying back today from his fourth trade mission to China, this one primarily to Shanghai. These missions aren’t cheap -- the last one cost more than a quarter of a million dollars – but he thinks they are more than worth it.

This morning, the governor told the Associated Press that this personal diplomacy helps open doors for Michigan businesses, and “sends a strong message” that the state is serious about trade ties.

He noted that one such company, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, announced it would locate a new facility in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, creating nearly two hundred new jobs.

I then asked a Democrat who is somewhat of a China expert about the governor’s travels. Tom Watkins now heads the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority. But for years, he’s been a booster of stonger ties between Michigan and China.

He told me

“Governor Snyder has done more to build two-way cultural, educational and economic bridges with China than all his predecessors combined.” Watkins thinks Snyder “is laying a foundation that future administrations will build upon and which will pay dividends in jobs and economic investment for years to come.”

Watkins, probably the state’s biggest China booster, believes there is a natural symbiosis between our state and that huge country. “Michigan has much of what the Chinese need and want: Autos, agriculture, tourism and education,” plus a market in which half a billion people have recently risen into the middle class.

Building ties with China takes years and is dependent on growing a human personal presence. These trips are important even if no immediate deal is signed every time.

“The governor understands Michigan is not an island,”

he said. Hard to disagree, though I think a note of caution is in order.

The Chinese are neither supermen nor infallible. A few years ago, Toledo aggressively cultivated the Chinese, who then bought a key section of riverfront property.

Yet they never developed it, something that was a factor in the defeat of an incumbent mayor there last year.

But indeed, China is the largest emerging market in the world, with more than a billion people hungry for cars and consumer goods.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. 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.

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