A variety of panelists from Chinese businesses, government and media who aimed to share their insights on the future of economic relations between the United States and China spoke at the 2017 Michigan China Forum, which was held at the Ross School of Business over the weekend as part of the bicentennial of the University of Michigan.

The event, which more than 500 people attended, was organized by the Chinese Students & Scholars Association, the University’s chapter of China Entrepreneur Network and Shanghai Jiao Tong University Student and Alumni Association at the University of Michigan.

Engineering senior Ziqi Guo, president of the SJTU Student and Alumni Association and one of the organizers of the forum, said he wanted to build a stronger relationship between China and the University by inviting leading thinkers.

“(An) area that we really emphasize is the younger generation,” Guo said. “We really want to make this a platform for students from China, the U.S. and all countries to come together and learn with each other and hope to understand each other better.”

Sunday, the second day of the event, opened with a keynote address by Hong Lei, the Chinese Consul General in Chicago, who addressed the need to forge a new and stronger Sino-American relationship by overcoming the two countries’ differences and identifying shared interests.

“China’s greatest desire is to focus our development of our own, and improve and ensure people’s livelihoods,” Hong said. “To achieve this goal, China needs to stay in harmony with the rest of the world, including the U.S., and achieve win-win results through cooperation.”

Hong was joined by Brian Connors, executive director of the Michigan-China Innovation Center, who chronicled the enormous strides the state of Michigan has made in developing strong economic ties with China, especially in the automotive sector.

“I hope the Consul-General would agree that … Michigan is among the most welcoming and the most friendly and certainly the most active in this region among the Midwestern states in attracting Chinese investment and building relationships with China,” Connors said.

The keynote was followed by a series of panels discussing topics like U.S.-China relations, development of new media, entrepreneurship and autonomous vehicle technology.

One of the issues widely discussed among the panelists was bilateral relations under the administration of President Donald Trump. Trump has so far taken a hardline stance against China, by taking a jab at their currency policy, blaming the country for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and breaking diplomatic precedent by calling the president of Taiwan, a region that Beijing considers a renegade province.

Gene Ma, chief China economist at Institute of International Finance, expressed concern about the upcoming meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, explaining Trump’s erratic behavior may confound the more reserved Xi.

“I’m very cautious that these two need to really try very hard to find common ground,” Ma said. “I don’t think President Xi Jinping will play golf … I’m afraid President Xi Jinping will talk based on a script through an interpreter, (but) President Trump will lose patience after five minutes.”

Engineering graduate student Xiran Bai said she found the interaction between Ma and the venture capitalists on the panel interesting because while Ma was pessimistic about U.S.-China relations, the venture capitalists’ outlooks were positive.

Bai said she sees truth in both sides of the argument, referring to Trump’s most recent executive order banning immigrants and refugees from six Muslim-majority countries.

“The (executive) order from President Trump, it can happen to us,” Bai said. “But from a business standpoint, everybody wants to make money, so that’s probably not going to be effective.”

When asked about anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, Dwight Carlson, CEO of Coherix, an Ann Arbor-based 3-D machine vision company, said unions in Michigan were actually welcoming of Chinese companies investing in the state.

“Chinese companies are developing a very good relationship when they purchase (American) companies,” Carlson said. “The labor unions recognize that Chinese companies invest and therefore increase the number of jobs.”

Harry Man, a partner at Matrix Partners China, a private equity investment firm, addressed the concerns of Chinese “copycats” of American online services — for example, Baidu to Google and Sina Weibo to Twitter. Man said this is because everyone’s needs are relatively the same, and Chinese companies are starting to create innovative services of their own.

“A lot of people like to say that Chinese companies are copying what’s happening in the US, (but) it just so happens that in the initial 15 to 20 years of the development of internet space, creativity, the majority started from the U.S.,” Man said. “But in the last 2 to 3 years, we’ve been seeing a clear trend of more and more local creativity being done in China.”

Another popular topic was how American companies big and small can thrive in China in the face of local competition and business customs peculiar to the region.

Veronica Wu, co-president of China Science and Merchants Capital Investment Group, a Chinese private investment firm, said American companies must lessen their dependence on past successful experiences in the United States and adapt to Chinese business practices.

“I think the biggest mistake American companies make is the arrogance of thinking, ‘this is the way we succeeded, this is the way we will succeed in China,’ ” Wu said. “Even if you’re a successful U.S. company, going to China, you need to really make that commitment, ‘I am going to be in China,’ which means that you have to localize operation, localize product, localize team, to operate and be willing to be open to that possibility.”

In his closing statement, Jun Ni, Shien-Ming Wu Collegiate professor of manufacturing science and professor of mechanical engineering, shared his experience creating a lasting relationship between Michigan and the Chinese province of Guangdong.

He urged Chinese and Chinese-American students attending to do the same and pioneer a greater future for the United States and China.

“Any one of you can do a similar thing,” Ni said. “You have a lot of background, and with your own network — maybe your parents’ network — you can be a useful, productive force to bridge the two great countries.”

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