A rising China is changing the way Americans live overseas and at home

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

WAUSAU, WIS. -- In a cavernous warehouse amid rolling hills and dairy farms, a group of farmers recently gathered around a buyer in a conversation heralding a sea change in the United States.

"I don't think you Americans get it," said the buyer, dressed casually in designer brands and sporting a watch worth as much as the mud-splattered GM trucks in the parking lot outside. "We need quality. We demand quality. Top quality. If you work with me, we can win together. But if you don't, there's nothing I can do."

Being harangued by a pharmaceutical company executive from China was new for these burly farmers, but no one complained. These tough men from the American Midwest treated their Chinese guest as a savior of sorts, in an important economic and cultural reality that will confront President Obama on his first visit to China, starting Sunday.

On visits to Shanghai and Beijing, Obama will encounter not simply a rising global power but a nation that is transforming and challenging the way Americans live overseas and at home, from college classrooms to real estate offices to the ginseng farms of central Wisconsin.

Americans have been selling Panax quinquefolius to China since 1784 when the first China-bound trading ship sailed from New York to Canton, today's Guangzhou, weighed down with 30 tons of the root, prized in Asia for medicinal properties. But today the U.S. ginseng industry, centered here in Wisconsin, is on its back, kicked down by bogus imitations from Chinese competitors and state-subsidized crops from Canada.

Twenty years ago, 1,500 farmers grew ginseng in Wisconsin for the China market; now the number is down to 150. Prices have dropped from $60 a pound to $24. The farmers around the ginseng barrels on this rainy fall night looked for an answer from Chun Yu, a Chinese businessman dangling his company's chain of 1,000 retail stores throughout China as the ultimate prize.

"Years ago, it didn't matter what we grew. They bought everything we had," said Randy Ross, a 54-year-old former dairy farmer who has been growing ginseng since 1978. "Now we've got to learn how to satisfy them. They are changing us."

Catching China fever

While it's not exactly the People's Republic of Wisconsin, this state has been seized with a China fever of sorts. Throughout the United States, old notions of China have been replaced with a deeper understanding that China is a force that must be reckoned with. Hate it or love it, China is a major player in American life.

China is now Wisconsin's (and the country's) third-biggest export market, buying more American soybeans, oil seeds, hides and animal skins, raw cotton, copper, nonferrous metals, wood pulp, semiconductors and miscellaneous chicken parts (a.k.a. chicken feet) than anyone else.

At the University of Wisconsin, as at college campuses across the United States, mainland Chinese dominate the study of science and technology and form the backbone of the engineering, chemistry and pharmacy departments. They receive twice as many doctorates in this country as students from India, the next-closest foreign competitor. And among foreigners, they register by far the most patents in the United States.

Chinese investors have snapped up pieces of distressed real estate in Milwaukee, as they have in other crumbling Midwestern industrial cities, not to mention in Florida, California and Arizona. Last year, a group from Germantown, Md., and China bought an empty mall on Milwaukee's depressed northwest side for $6 million, down from its $8 million list price. In July, a Chinese steelmaker bought 54 acres in an industrial park off Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Chicago.

A team of Midwestern businessmen, including the former CIA station chief in Beijing, has recently established, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, a special zone in Wisconsin that would grant U.S. citizenship in exchange for a $1 million investment.

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