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What’s Happening in China? An Interview with Tom Watkins

Oct 5, 2017 by

Former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools Tom Watkins has a lifelong interest in China, sparked by a long-ago, Washington DC  4th grade geography teacher. He has traveled extensively in China over the last three decades – a much sought-after “old China hand” – an expert in all things China.

In China now, Tom is doing what he does best: building cultural, economic and educational ties between the U.S. and China.  We caught up with him as he was leaving Beijing and Tianjin, on his way to the Yunan Province.

Q.) Tom, you are on an extended, 3-week trip to China, having written hundreds, if not over a 1,000, articles on China. You have traveled extensively throughout the country for nearly 3 decades, why?

Today, the U.S. and China are the two major world powers. Every major world event will intersect at the corners of Washington, D.C., and Beijing. How our national and sub-national leaders manage this relationship will not only impact our two nations but all humanity. There is little that I, as an individual citizen, can do to impact issues like North Korea, theft of intellectual property, cybersecurity, tensions over the South China Sea or climate change. However, I can, and am trying, to do what I can to build bridges and help each side better understand each other on a “people-to-people” basis. By writing about China (SEE  TomWatkinsChinaUSFocus) and helping produce an Emmy Award-winning 2- hour documentary, Building Bridges: from the Great Lakes to the Great Wall, I hope my small part will educate each side about the other. I am proud to serve as an advisor to the Michigan/China Innovation Center,, the Michigan US China Exchange Center, and the Detroit Chinese Business Association The more we understand each other the safer and better our world will be.

In the introduction, I am referred to as a China “expert.” I truly don’t believe such a person exists – certainly, it’s not me. While I may know more than the average American about China – with its 4,000+ year history and rapidly changing society – I am not sure such a person exists that is an “expert” on China. I am proud of the knowledge I have gained over the years with my China travels, reading. And absorbing the Chinese culture and I hope to do my part to educate as I go.

Q.) What are your top 3 takeaways from this latest trip?

Great question!  China change is happening at warp speed in the 21st century. Watching the China that I discovered on my very first trip there in 1989 compared with today, is like watching a black and white TV suddenly changed to 3-D Technicolor. The change is that stark: from drab Mao suits and no private ownership of anything, including cars, to today’s seemingly anything-goes culture and the largest car market in the world today. China is not the backwater it was and it will shortly eclipse our economy as the largest economy in the world today. With 1.3 billion people and a huge economic driver, China will continue to surge forward. Wise U.S. leaders are doing what they can to assure China’s continued rise does not come at our demise.

Just a few years ago, I drove in what was then considered the ‘boondocks’ of China. Today there are subways built, bullet trains and new freeways under construction. The infrastructure development in China makes us look like we are in the dark ages. We need to invest in our infrastructure in America if we wish to remain competitive in the 21st century. The contrast is stark.

The sheer level of optimism in China is truly palpable. For a country that only opened to the world thirty years ago after suffering through Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and the sheer lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, there is a nationalist spirit that is awe-inspiring. I get a sense, especially from young people, that the sky is not the limit, but merely a starting point. China’s leaders are driven to make China number one and are willing to work hard to turn their dream into a reality.

I know you asked for 3, but I am going to add another:  there seems to be a genuine affinity for American and America. No, they don’t want to be us or necessarily be like us, but there is a true desire to build friendship and connections with Americans. I don’t ever recall being treated with anything but respect, kindness, and a genuine desire to build friendships and learn both from our successes and failures.

We need to do more to build on this connection with China’s one- fifth of all the world’s humanity, and the largest global market and fastest growing large economy in the world.

Q.) It used to be said that China was the factory of the world and they would steal intellectual property. Is this a true statement and is it possible that China could become an innovation nation?

Clearly, China still produces lots of “stuff.” Try to find any item, not made in China. It can be a daunting task. Yet, China is rapidly moving up the food chain when it comes to technology, sustainability, technology, and now artificial intelligence.

China is shifting gears and yes, they are becoming more and more an innovation nation. One needs to look no further than your local university to see that China knows an educational great bargain. They are sending their youth to America and other western nations to be educated. In the past, they would often stay and enrich our nation. More and more though, young, educated Chinese with their unmatched work ethic and superior education, are returning to China and looking to start their own companies.

There are opportunities for American educational institutions to enter the Chinese market– the Chinese families are eager to buy an American education for their children.

To think America can remain “King of the Mountain” without re-doubling our innovation efforts is to overlook the new reality. China, which once referred to itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, is now looking to regain its foothold as the greatest nation on earth.

Q) What first spurred your interest in China, Tom?

Great teachers change lives. I recall my fourth-grade teacher explaining this far off land which seemed a mystery to me back then, well before the U.S. normalized relations with China. It was as foreign as North Korea is to us today. From that moment on, I was hooked on all things China. Today, I have a large volume of Chinese books, so much so that my kids tease me that my home is like a Chinese museum from all the items I have brought home from China over the years. Yet as I already mentioned, I know relatively little about all there is to know about China. But the spark from many years ago still rages within. More and more Americans need to learn about China– it will have a profound impact on the world going forward.

Q) What should we be doing in terms of education to assure that China’s continual rise does not come at our demise?

First, we need to understand that simply because we have been “Number One” economically and militarily for so long,  that it is our God-given right to stay there.  We need to embrace the creativity and innovation that built our educational system, and move away from rote learning and over- testing. The Chinese inevitably ask me, “How do you teach creativity?”

We need to get serious about appropriately funding education and not try to produce the minds of tomorrow on the cheap. If we value our children and our collective future we need to get deadly serious about educating far more of our youth to world-class standards and not saddle them with massive debt in order to obtain a college education.

China is not standing still, waiting for us to get our act together, they are marching forward with determination and investing in what matters:  their people.

Q) Tell our readers about your visit to the “Flying Tigers” in Kunming, China, and why more Americans should remember this history.

This is an extraordinary visit, a reminder of the deep and lasting friendship we have with the Chinese people.

Many Americans don’t know about the handful of American mercenaries/volunteers who scorched the earth and sky in defense of China, officially known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), but best remembered as the ‘Flying Tigers’ – the English translation of Fei Hou. The nickname was bestowed by the grateful Chinese after American pilots attacked a large number of Japanese fighters over Kunming on December 20, 1941. In just seven months of intense aerial combat, the AVG earned a lasting niche in Chinese aviation history, reportedly destroying nearly 300 airplanes.

This is just one of many connections that the U.S. has with China – the basis of a long and lasting friendship that will withstand the challenges we face as the two superpowers on the planet today.

Q) How can American schools benefit from China’s rise?

The Chinese want and need everything we have in the U.S., including, or perhaps especially-education. Clearly, this is seen at the higher ed, university level, but there is also a strong appetite for the community college, high school and even middle schools level. Community colleges and school districts should be looking at ways to bring Chinese students to their campuses and tap the blended and e-learning opportunities we provide. Bringing Chinese students to campus can help broaden the exposure of American students to the Chinese while strengthening both countries’  bottom line.

Q) I understand there is a “21st century” Rhodes scholarship program, called Schwartzman Scholars, what is it?

Schwarzman Scholars is a highly selective, one-year master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing that is designed to prepare the next generation of global leaders for the challenges of the future.

Oh, to be young again! I would have done anything to have had this experience. Imagine the formal and informal learning you would experience by being part of this cohort, not to mention the lifelong contacts from around the globe.

Q.) What is a Confucius Institute?

The Confucius Institute is a non-profit, public educational organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. Its aim is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges. There are over 300 Confucius Institutes around the globe

Q) Where can our readers learn more about your thoughts and experiences in China?

See Tom Watkins – CHINA US Focus website, or simply Google Tom Watkins/China. Multiple articles will pop up.

Q.) Right now it seems the U.S. President and North Korea are having a “war of the words” if not a war of “tweets”. Where does China stand regarding North Korea? Is it to China’s benefit to be more aligned with the U.S. or North Korea?

This requires a delicate balance. The Chinese have no interest in seeing the North Korean Peninsula becoming more unstable than it already is. Furthermore, they have no interest in having the current regime toppled and South Korea taking over the entire Peninsula, putting the U.S. directly at their doorstep. Both China and the U.S. are dancing delicately around North Korea.

Stay tuned: President Trump is visiting China in November. Trade and North Korea are sure to be on the agenda.

Q.) Is there anything I have not asked about China that you would like to share with our readers? Where can our readers reach you?

Thanks, Michael, as usual, you asked pointed questions and I appreciate the ability to contribute. People interested in building bridges to China are free to contact me at or or read more here: Tom Watkins – CHINA US Focus

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