By Carol Cain 

With education being vital to Michigan’s future, one person beating the drum loud and long for building bridges to China as part of that is Tom Watkins.

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Some describe him as Michigan’s Chinese Pied Piper.

The former state superintendent of education and mental health director of Michigan has been writing and leading the way for many.

“Tom is the person who encouraged me to add Mandarin into our schools,” Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said when he announced his county would become the first in the U.S. to offer Mandarin in all 28 school districts.

It has done what Watkins predicted and made his county more welcoming to Chinese culture, which has translated into additional investments.

China has 1.3 billion people – one-fifth of the world’s population – and a booming middle class with money to spend.

Why not create two-way bridges that help Michigan?

Watkins was also named Friday as an inaugural member of the newly formed international board of advisors for business development that will be assisting Michigan Economic Development Corp. with global efforts.

“As we continue to build a bilateral trade bridge with Michigan, Tom will help us shape that strategy,” said MEDC Senior Vice President Doug Smith.

Snyder, who took office a year ago, included China in his first trade mission to Asia.

Watkins, who credited his fourth grade teacher with inspiring his fascination with China, has been educating people through his many newspaper columns. He’s been to China regularly since 1989.

“China can and must be part of the ingredients necessary to reinvent and revitalize Michigan’s economy,” Watkins, CEO of TDW & Associates, a global consulting firm, said on  a recent  “Michigan Matters.” (You can reach Watkins at

Also appearing on the show was Lisa Gray, president of the Chinese Association of Greater Detroit (CAGD).

Watkins was the first non-Chinese  board member admitted to CAGD (the  organization has 2,500 members). And he just  received CAGD’s  “2012 Leadership Trailblazer  Award” from  Chinese Consul General Yang Guoqiang and Gray during the organization’s   20th anniversary celebration.  Snyder also received a “2012 Leadership Trailblazer Award” from the organization.

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“We gave Tom this award for his unwavering passion, vision and leadership in building economic, cultural and educational bridges to China,” said Gray.

Gray is in Beijing and Shanghai this week to promote Michigan and its auto industry and said Watkins’efforts will help make that easier.

C. Peter Theut, president and CEO of China Bridge, has also looked to  Watkins for guidance.

“Tom’s global vision and relentless commitment to all things China has qualified him as the leading advocate for the diverse opportunities that China offers Michigan,” Theut said.

Michael Liu, of CompuPacific,  now also part of China Bridge, added,  “Tom’s knowledge and understanding of China culture and China’s educational system is remarkable and his input simply invaluable to building effective bridges between our countries.”

When CBS62 was putting together its prime time special, “Building Bridges: From the Great Lakes to the Great Wall,” Watkins helped as a China consultant.

Stirring the pot:

Watkins has also stirred controversy at times, not only with his advocacy on behalf of reaching out to China, but  keeping education and kids at the forefront at all times.

He advocated for sensible school choice before it was popular. In the early 1990s, he had a lead role in helping create Michigan’s first charter school, the University Public School in Detroit, and the first one in Florida.

As Superintendent of Michigan Schools in 2004, he took tremendous heat when he wrote a report advocating for schools and municipalities to share services and address rising health care and pension costs.

(You can it at

One can only imagine the woes that might have been avoided  today in Detroit and the state had more listened then.

Thankfully, more leaders are embracing what he has been saying about education and the Asian nation.

And that no doubt makes Michigan’s Chinese Pied Piper want to lead folks in a celebratory song or two.

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(Carol Cain is the Emmy winning Senior Producer and Host of “Michigan Matters” which airs Sundays 11:30 a.m. She writes about politics and business in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at