Build­ing bridges from Michi­gan to China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By PAUL WELITZKIN In New York paulwelitzkin@chi­nadai­lyusa. com

As Gov­er­nor Rick Sny­der wraps up another ex­tended trip to China, Michi­gan con­tin­ues to be a leader among US states in de­vel­op­ing eco­nomic and cul­tural ties with China.

And Tom Watkins has emerged as a driv­ing force be­hind the Wolver­ine state’s ex­pand­ing re­la­tion­ship with China. A for­mer state su­per­in­ten­dent for Michi­gan pub­lic schools and for­mer state men­tal health di­rec­tor, Watkins is a decades-long trav­eler to China and he has con­sulted on China eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and ed­u­ca­tion is­sues. He is cur­rently the pres­i­dent and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Men­tal Health Au­thor­ity in Michi­gan.

His in­ter­est in China be­gan in el­e­men­tary school in the 1960s when a fourth-grade teacher turned the spot­light on China.

“Look­ing back, I be­lieve it was the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the ideal of what I was be­ing taught about what Amer­ica stood for against the re­al­ity I saw through my 10-year-old eyes while grow­ing up in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal, with seg­re­ga­tion and poverty abound­ing. That, along with the Chi­nese spin that es­poused to­tal equal­ity in China, cre­ated a life-long fascination with the coun­try. I have had my eyes on China ever since,” he said.

It would be more than 20 years be­fore Watkins ex­pe­ri­enced China per­son­ally. In 1988 he or­ga­nized an in­ter­na­tional men­tal health con­fer­ence in Detroit. Among the par­tic­i­pants were four men­tal health of­fi­cials from China. As a fa­vor, the of­fi­cials in­vited Watkins to China and in 1989, his first trip to the main­land in­cluded stops in Beijing, Nan­jing and Xi’an, where he toured men­tal health fa­cil­i­ties.

On that trip, Watkins be­gan a cus­tom that has served him well. “Since it was the 1980s, I car­ried a Po­laroid (a cam­era that took in­stant photographs) and I would not only take pic­tures of the Chi­nese but also of my­self and give them the photo so I could leave some­thing be­hind. This proved to be very ben­e­fi­cial in build­ing a re­la­tion­ship and cre­at­ing a two-way ex­change, which is some­thing I still try to do to­day,” he told China Daily in an in­ter­view.

That year Watkins made another visit to China, stop­ping in Harbin and tak­ing the train from Beijing to Ti­bet. That trip be­gan for him the process of un­lock­ing China’s his­tory, cul­ture and so­ci­ety.

“I found the Chi­nese peo­ple cu­ri­ous and in­ter­ested in me and the United States,” he said. “Re­mem­ber, in the 1980s, both the US and China were just be­gin­ning to open up to each other. I know I learned a lot about the Chi­nese peo­ple, their cul­ture and his­tory. I would like to think I helped them to learn at least a lit­tle about the US as well.”

When vis­it­ing China, Watkins likes to to­tally im­merse him­self in the coun­try and its peo­ple. “I try to stay in Chi­nese ho­tels rather than Western ho­tels op­er­at­ing in the coun­try,” he said. “I find that this helps me to un­der­stand and ex­pe­ri­ence China in a much more per­sonal way.”

Be­cause of his many trips to China, Watkins has been able to ex­plore some of the lesser-known ar­eas of the coun­try. “I have been to the moun­tains near Zhangji­a­jie in Hu­nan prov­ince,” he said. “Th­ese con­tain some of the most spec­tac­u­lar scenery any­where in the world. It was used as a model for some of



many of us still pos­sess an im­age of China that doesn’t re­flect its com­plex­ity and change, es­pe­cially over the last 30 years.”



the back­ground shots in the movie Avatar.”

Watkins be­lieves that Americans need to ed­u­cate them­selves about China. “Too many of us still pos­sess an im­age of China that doesn’t re­flect its com­plex­ity and change, es­pe­cially over the last 30 years,” he said. “We are still be­holden to an im­age of China that was formed when our par­ents told us to eat ev­ery­thing on our plates Deputy Chief of Staff in Michi­gan gov­er­nor’s of­fice State Su­per­in­ten­dent of Michi­gan Pub­lic Schools Di­rec­tor, State of Michi­gan Men­tal Health Ser­vices Spe­cial As­sis­tant to Pres­i­dent at Wayne State Univer­sity Pres­i­dent, TDW and As­so­ciates Honorary Pro­fes­sor at univer­sity in Mainyang in Sichuan prov­ince, China — there are chil­dren starv­ing in China. China is a mod­ern na­tion and so­ci­ety that hap­pens to in­clude a 5,000-year his­tory.”

Watkins spends a lot of his time try­ing to help build upon the Michi­gan-China con­nec­tion. Michi­gan has one of the more en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ships with China. Michi­gan’s own Leonard Wood­cock, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the United Au­to­mo­bile Work­ers (UAW) union, was named by Pres­i­dent Carter in 1977 to be chief li­ai­son to China. Two years later, Wood­cock be­came the first US am­bas­sador to the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China.

Michi­gan is slowly re­build­ing its econ­omy as it seeks to re­cover from the down­turn caused by the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Most agree that Michi­gan suf­fered the most, as Detroit, the state’s largest city and the epi­cen­ter of the US au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try, is just start­ing to emerge from bank­ruptcy.

Watkins be­lieves that China will be a cru­cial part of the state’s eco­nomic re­cov­ery. “Michi­gan has ev­ery­thing that China will want or need. From autos to tourism to food, Michi­gan can pro­vide the prod­ucts and ser­vices that will help fuel the mid­dle-class growth China wants,” he said.

Watkins be­lieves that tourism may serve as the state’s ace in the hole when it comes to nur­tur­ing eco­nomic ties with China. Al­ready home to a thriv­ing tourist trade thanks to an abun­dance of wa­ter and other nat­u­ral attractions, Watkins thinks China’s ris­ing mid­dle-class will seek a US va­ca­tion al­ter­na­tive once they have ex­plored New York, Las Ve­gas and Dis­ney World.

“After spend­ing time in Shang­hai and Beijing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing all the pol­lu­tion in those ci­ties, I be­lieve the Chi­nese will want a place with fresh air, clear rivers and lakes and green forests. I don’t see any rea­son why they can’t en­joy Tahqua­menon Falls in the Up­per Penin­sula or a fresh­wa­ter lake as large as an ocean (Lake Su­pe­rior),” he said.

Watkins calls the US-China re­la­tion­ship the most im­por­tant bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship in the world to­day. “Ev­ery ma­jor is­sue is go­ing to in­ter­sect be­tween Beijing and Wash­ing­ton. I be­lieve the re­cent agree­ments on emis­sions and visas be­tween China and the US are good and at least both sides are en­gaged in pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sions.”

Just be­cause of their sheer size, Watkins be­lieves it’s vi­tal that China and the US main­tain a good con­nec­tion. “To have a world with the US and China at odds is sim­ply unimag­in­able to me,” he said.


Tom Watkins, a decades-long trav­eler to China, is ded­i­cated to ex­pand­ing Michi­gan’s ties with China.

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