Sign Up

America’s Double Take on China

How do the people of a small American city view China — as an opportunity or a threat?

October 23, 2012

How do the people of a small American city view China — as an opportunity or a threat?

It was a sunny autumn day in southern Alabama. Monroeville, a small city of 28,000 people, was dotted with signs greeting a group of more than 80 potential Chinese investors.

“Welcome China,” the signs declared in both English and Chinese. They could be found in front of the local Walmart and Burger King — and even between haystacks in a field.

Meanwhile up north that same week, in the swing state of Ohio, China was not a desired partner, but a villain. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, fought over who would be tougher on a country viewed as a threat to American power and as the principal killer of American jobs.

The citizens of Monroeville don’t care about such luxuries as the implications of China’s rise. They have more immediate concerns — how to re-energize their economically depressed part of the country.

With that uppermost in their minds, they have decided to see China as a positive factor for their own future — and as their last chance.

At the opening of the “Alabama China Partnership Symposium,” a local singer in cowboy boots and the town’s Chinese teacher, clad in a traditional red dress for the occasion, belted out the two countries’ national anthems. A procession of speakers followed on stage, each starting out with the same battle cry: “Ni hao, y’all! — Hello, everybody!”

The Chinese guests clearly enjoyed themselves in the American South. They praised the clean air, the vast land and the Southern hospitality.

To the north of Monroeville, the town of Thomasville already landed its first China deal. Golden Dragon, a manufacturer of copper tubes, is building a $100 million plant with the promise to employ more than 300 people.

According to Raymond Cheng, a Hong Kong-based consultant who facilitated the deal, nine more investments are in the pipeline.

Organizers of the conference were convinced that the last thing they needed were prominent American politicians badmouthing China. “History tells us that new and old powers come into conflict,” George F. Landegger, chairman of the Alabama China Partnership, said in his opening remarks. “My hope is that economics may trump nationalism.”

Landegger is the heir of a pulp mill empire founded by his father, an immigrant from Austria — and he has become a patron for Southern Alabama. When German carmaker Mercedes set up its first U.S. plant in Tuscaloosa, Landegger was a popular interlocutor.

“They needed me to say nice things about Alabama in German,” he said.

He now tries to lure Chinese entrepreneurs with the same arguments that previously convinced Germans, Japanese and others to invest in the state: Taxes are low, land is cheap, and there are no labor unions.

Critics would say, with regard to the last selling point, that the American South competes by encouraging a race to the bottom.

Landegger shrugs this off. “We favor management through direct dialogue, not through a union leader who has to show how tough he is,” he told his audience in Monroeville.

But he also made clear that this did not mean a free pass. “You have to treat your workers well. Work hours and environmental conditions are regulated by law.”

In rural Alabama, where unemployment rates are above the national average, a job is a job, with or without a union. While the presidential candidates are debating the dangers of jobs being outsourced to China, these communities are betting on the reversal of the trend.

“We cannot control what Obama and Romney say on the campaign trail,” said Roger Barlow, City Council President of Center Point, another Alabama town eager to attract Chinese investment. “This is our last big opportunity. The Germans are already here, now we have the Chinese. Let’s not mess it up.”

“Rather than borrowing money from China, we should invite China to invest here,” said Congressman Jo Bonner, a moderate Republican who represents Alabama’s First District.

Chinese foreign direct investment in the United States has grown to a record $6.3 billion in the first three quarters of 2012. And Chinese investors have created 27,000 jobs in the United States since 2000.

“This is not much yet, but if you look at the path Japan took, you can see the potential,” said Thilo Hanemann, a consultant for the New York-based Rhodium Group that compiles data on Chinese FDI.

By comparison, Japanese companies employ more than 700,000 Americans today. If the trend continues, investments from China could create up to 400,000 jobs by 2020, said Hanemann.

A broken community

For places like Monroeville, it will be hard to regain what was lost. Take the Vanity Fair Country Club. It is where the visitors gathered for a buffet of Chinese dumplings and roast beef on the eve of the conference.

It is also what’s left of the days when its namesake textile company was the region’s biggest employer. In the 1990s, one textile plant after another decamped — moving first to Mexico, and then on to China.

“I don’t care who comes as long as they invest here and want to be a part of something,” said Stephanie Rogers, who runs the local history museum in the Old Courthouse building. Many of the storefronts around the once bustling town square are empty. “We are a broken community,” she said.

The concerns that get Washington politicians riled up — such as whether equipment by Chinese companies allows China to spy on the United States — find little traction here. (A Congressional report released after the Monroeville symposium called for the U.S. government to block U.S. investments by Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE, which manufacture telecommunications equipment.)

The real issue in southern Alabama is the ability to put food onto the family table.

In the evening of the conference’s first day, the courthouse was the backdrop for a theater adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, in honor of the town’s most famous daughter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee.

The story, in which a black man is unfairly accused of a crime and denied a fair trial during the time of racial segregation, was presented to the audience as a tale about the importance of the rule of law.

“I hope that they can learn something about our values,” said Buchanan Watson, a college sophomore who also said he was wary of China’s political system.

Congressman Bonner agreed that the United States should stand up for its values. But to him, the play was also a reminder to be patient with the emerging power. “In Alabama, it is only 50 years ago that black people had to fight to sit at the same lunch counter or ride on the same busses as white people.”

Fifty years from now, it will be a very different world again. Casey Blankenship, a college freshman, said she had no idea what the future will hold for her. But she was certain of one thing: “The relationship the United States has with China will directly impact my generation.”

In the view of the people of Monroeville, the fate of their town will depend on how the next president handles this relationship, whoever gets elected on November 6th.


"I don't care who comes, as long as they invest here and want to be a part of something. We are a broken community." (Stephanie Rogers)

"History tells us that new and old powers come into conflict. My hope is that economics may trump nationalism." (George F. Landegger)

The citizens of Monroeville have decided to see China as a positive factor for their own future — and as their last chance.