Fear China. Michigan politicians have long relied on these words to drum up votes in a state battered during economic downturns.
But a controversial china-bashing ad backfired on Republication Senate Candidate Pete Hoekstra. His ad, aired only in Michigan during the Super Bowl, featured a young Asian woman gloating that China “take your jobs.”
See the ad:
The ad caused a storm in Michigan, which has seen its Asian population double in the last decade, to 2.4 percent of the state’s overall total. Hoekstra’s opponent, Debbie Stabenow, saw contributions soar. On Thursday, the actress, Lisa Chan, this year’s Miss Napa Valley, apologized for taking part in it.
Perhaps Michiganders recognize that they have important ties to China. China has become Michigan’s third-largest export market: Exports have tripled in just five years, from $699 million to nearly $2.2 billion in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
China’s also been on a buying spree in Michigan, most recently buying Nexteer Inc., a Saginaw-based steering and driveline systems manufacturer, in April 2011. Two of Michigan’s automakers – General Motors and Ford Motor Co. – have seen car sales soar in China.
Michigan’s previous two-term governor and frequent China critic, Jennifer Granholm, never led a trade mission to China. Rick Snyder, the state’s new Republican governor, made it his first foreign destination, promoting Michigan businesses in September 2011. Just this week, Snyder traveled to Iowa to welcome and dine with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the nation’s expected next president.
“China used to be used as the boogie man, said Tom Watkins, CEO of TDW and Associates, a U.S.-China consulting company in Northville. “But now people know we need to paint Michigan with a big sign that says to China, ‘Welcome.’ Other states are competing to get China’s attention. Michigan needs to do anything and everything it can to make China want to invest here and buy our products.”
The state is considering reopening a trade office in China to trumpet Michigan products, universities and tourism attractions, like its Great Lakes sport fishing, casinos and golfing.
“We see China as a very important market,” says Doug Smith, a senior vice president at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a public-private partnership promoting Michigan as a business destination. He said MEDC was looking at either reopening a trade office in China, or hiring someone to represent the state. It’s also hiring a Mandarin-speaker for its staff. “We don’t think we can function effectively without that.”
Politicians will still bash China this election cycle. But the backlash we’ve seen in Michigan may signal a shift in voter attitudes. Tell us what you think.