The China Connection: Ties Between Middle Tennessee and China Strengthening Over Recent Years

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The China Connection: Ties Between Middle Tennessee and China Strengthening Over Recent Years

Despite Some Concerns and Tension Between the U.S. and China, Business, Education and Political Leaders Seek to Enhance Dialogue, Investment

As China’s economy has grown rapidly over recent years, so has its involvement and investment in Middle Tennessee.

Numerous Chinese companies have constructed manufacturing facilities in the area, including Sinomax in La Vergne, which produces mattresses, mattress covers and pillows, and Wonder Porcelain in Lebanon, which produces porcelain floor tiles and other products.

Elizabeth Rowland, the founder and executive director of the TN-China Network—a group that aims to promote bilateral trade and investment between Tennessee and China and to enhance job growth in Tennessee—says that now approximately 70 Chinese companies have expanded to Tennessee.

Rowland, who was raised in Tennessee, lived in China for almost five years and worked several of those as a policy analyst. After moving back to Tennessee she considered doing investment and trade consulting related to commerce with China.

“I traveled across the state to find out what kind of business was going on between Tennessee and China. I found that there was a lot more business going on than I thought, but no one knew about it. There was no statewide platform for information sharing or China business networking; there was no place for companies to get educated on how to do business with China. So I decided to create that platform, and TN-China Network was born,” Rowland said.

Chinese manufacturer Sinomax now produces mattresses and pillows at its La Vergne, Tennessee, facility

In addition to the growing Chinese business investment in Tennessee, in Murfreesboro, the MTSU Confucius Institute and the MTSU Center for Chinese Music and Culture promote Chinese studies, art, language and history in the community.

While the U.S. still claims the highest GDP in the world, China’s is rapidly growing over the past decades. As recently as 1991, China’s economy did not even rank in the top 10 world economies. However, today, the annual economic production of China (a country with a population four times that of the U.S.) is second only to the U.S. Unsurprisingly, the economies of the two nations have become increasingly intertwined.

Xu Xueyuan, minister with the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America, visited Middle Tennessee in early August to discuss the relationship between the two largest economies in the world and “to promote two-way investment and trade between the U.S. and China.”

Xu desires to help citizens of both countries “understand each other so we can all work together for a better future,” she said at a gathering of Chinese and Tennessee business and political leaders coordinated by the Tennessee American-Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

“This year marks the 40th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between our two countries,” Xu noted, calling the gathering a “good demonstration of the desire to have more cooperation, engagement and communication with China.”

Tennessee State Rep. Mike Sparks and Xu Xueyuan, minister with the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, discuss Chinese investment in Tennessee. Photo by May Zhou for China Daily

Despite many reports dealing with tariffs, currency devaluation and “trade war” between the U.S. and China over recent months, most in the room seemed to believe that a healthy and open line of trade and communication between the countries would benefit the standard of living and job creation in both locations.

“China and the U.S. have been each other’s most important trading partners, and the two countries also act as an important source of investment to each other. Our bilateral relationship contributes greatly to economic growth and the improvement of people’s livelihood in both countries,” Xu remarked during her visit.

The relationship between the people of China and the United States “has helped contribute to world peace, prosperity, and stability. History has proven that both China and the United States benefit from cooperation and lose in confrontation,” she said.

“In 2018, the two-way trade of goods and services exceeded $750 billion . . . and trade with China helped every American household save hundreds of dollars,” according to Minister Xu. “More specifically, let’s look at Tennessee. China is the state’s third-largest goods and services export market. In 2016 alone, exports from Tennessee to China provided over 20,000 job opportunities to the state. At present, nearly 70 Chinese companies have invested in and established their presence in Tennessee, providing nearly 4,000 jobs.

“And these figures could have been much bigger if it were not for the trade war,” Xu said.

“We want to have a state that is welcoming, with low regulation and proper taxation,” Tennessee State Sen. Mark Pody said.

Wonder Porcelain, whose parent company is the largest producer of ceramic tile in China, chose Pody’s district as a home to its first manufacturing facility outside of mainland China.

That Lebanon, Tennessee, plant, which opened in 2017, currently employs approximately 210 people, according to American Wonder Porcelain President Michael Kephart.

“Our company is the largest direct Chinese investment in the state, at least at this point,” he said in August 2019, adding that he expects the growth to continue.

Kephart said he did not want to get into specifics of the “trade war” but did comment that “We perceive the world is better without wars of any kind, including trade.

“We hope for both countries to be successful in reaching a mutually agreeable settlement at the earliest possible time,” Kephart said.

Minister Xu said that in order for Chinese companies to invest into Tennessee and elsewhere in the U.S., often businessmen from China need to obtain visas to travel into the country, which require U.S. State Department approval. She sees quick and efficient approval of those visa requests made by individuals who want to create jobs in the U.S. as advantageous for both sides.

“Increasing tariffs or decoupling our economies will not resolve our differences in trade policy,” Xu said. “It will only hurt both sides.”

State Rep. Glen Casada said he encourages all organizations who want to invest in business in Tennessee to communicate with state lawmakers.

“When you run across obstacles that keep you from doing business, we want to hear from you,” Casada said.

Many officials from the City of La Vergne attended the Tennessee American-Chinese Chamber of Commerce event to support Sinomax, which employs about 500 people in La Vergne.

MTSU President Dr. Sidney McPhee also spoke on MTSU’s Confucius Institute, its Center for Chinese Music and Culture and the school’s recent inclusion of traditional Chinese herbal medicine as part of its academic curriculum.

MTSU President Sidney McPhee on one of his excursions to China

“I am a good supporter of this cultural exchange,” McPhee said. “I believe that a well-educated student needs to be able to communicate with the world and understand globalization.”

While numerous universities around the country house Confucius Institutes, McPhee has a particularly strong connection to the country. His writings and photographs documenting his travels to China are included in the book, photo exhibition and lecture series China: Through the Eyes of A University President [interestingly, the Amazon description of the book credits the photos to “the president of America–Sidney A. McPhee”].

However, as MTSU and McPhee increase involvement with China, many other universities distance themselves from the Confucius Institutes.

Texas A&M, the universities of South and North Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State and North Carolina State University have all recently closed Confucius Institutes and many professors, petitions and politicians call for more to be shut down, some calling them propaganda agents of the Communist Party of China infiltrating public American higher education.

Critics say that the Confucius Institutes distract the American students and public with dragons, fiddles, Confucius, the Great Wall and other positive Chinese imagery in an effort to earn support for an oppressive and authoritarian communist regime and grow its power.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has spoken out against the Confucius Institute model and encouraged American universities to terminate agreements with the Chinese government-run programs.

“There is mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use Confucius Institutes and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies,” Rubio stated in a letter addressed to university presidents in his state of Florida. “Confucius Institutes are Chinese government-run programs that use the teaching of Chinese language and culture as a tool to expand the political influence of the People’s Republic of China.”

University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins wrote a book on the Confucius Institute program, calling it “Academic Malware.” Sahlins referenced comments made by Li Changchun, a former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest body of the Chinese Communist Party, in a speech at the Beijing Headquarters of the Confucius Institute, where the Chinese official promoted the Confucius Institute as an appealing brand for extending China’s culture abroad and improving “soft power.”

“The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical,” Li said in his speech in China.

While supporters of free expression want universities to cover every topic possible in a student’s learning experience, Rubio and other critics point out that free discourse on many subjects that may not paint China in a positive light—open discussion of the Free Tibet movement, the June Fourth Incident or Tiananmen Square massacre or “political turmoil” (depending on who you ask), the status of Taiwan, protests in Hong Kong, the rounding up, imprisonment and execution of those who practice Falun Gong, reeducation through labor camps and other important cultural topics—does not occur at Confucius Institutes, and certainly not within mainland China.

“These institutes are overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education, and are instructed to only teach versions of Chinese history, culture or current events that are explicitly approved by the Chinese Government and Communist Party,” Rubio said.

To be fair, American-sponsored programs in universities abroad most likely present the glories and positive elements of the U.S. to their students. Still, critics of the Confucius Institutes say that support for an authoritarian regime that has not demonstrated a commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, a culture that has significant issues with human trafficking and inequality, a government that censors media and Internet content so heavily, is not in the interest of the American way, and that federal and state funding in the U.S. going to Confucius Institute programs is a conflict of interest and even a potential threat to national security.

“Given China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement,” Rubio wrote.

Minister Xu acknowledges that China is not done growing, and still has millions of people “who have yet to be lifted out of poverty,” putting it optimistically.

“China is ready to work with its American friends to ensure the long-term stability of China-U.S. relations, and contribute to lasting peace and prosperity of the world,” she said.

And many involved in business between the two nations say that despite the problems that exist, a healthy relationship and dialogue will indeed benefit the people of both countries.

Nashville businessman Dr. David Black, who founded Aegis Sciences Corporation with his wife, and former U.S. Rep., Diane Black, said that it made sense for the U.S. and China to do business and that he desires to grow the partnership and relationship between the U.S. and China.

“It’s not always easy to be in a relationship. You have to work on relationships,” Black said. “It benefits both of our countries to have a good relationship.”

Xu says that in order for people to have a true idea of China, she encourages them to visit China and experience the country for themselves.

“We believe the best way to know our country and its policies is to be there,” Xu said.

Kevin Zhou, the Director of Continuing Improvement with Sinomax, concluded his statement at the gathering in Nashville with a sentiment that seemed to resonate with many in the room on a deep level: “God bless China and God bless America,” Zhou said enthusiastically.

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About the Author

Bracken, a 2003 graduate of MTSU’s journalism program, is the founder and publisher of The Murfreesboro Pulse. He lives in Murfreesboro with his wife, graphic artist and business partner, Sarah, and son, Bracken Jr. Bracken enjoys playing the piano, sushi, Tool, football, chess, jogging, spending time in his backyard with his chickens, hippie music, climbing at The Ascent, bowling, swimming, soup, tennis, sunshine, revolution, defiance and anarchy. He can cook a mean grilled cheese, and can fry just about anything.