A Publication of WTVP

A visit to an ambitious country that will challenge America’s whole way of doing business…

If the Peoria region is to thrive in the global era, it needs smart, worldly people, men and women who understand the global economy and how it works—not just at the top of the biggest corporations, but up and down the management chain of companies large and small. I recently spent two weeks with some of these people—still students, still exploring the world, but ready to lead Peoria into the future.

From the Midwest to the Middle Kingdom
I didn’t meet them in Peoria, but on the other side of the world, in China. All are students at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, taking part in a program that, for five years now, has put ICC students into an intensive three-month program in China as part of the college’s international business curriculum.

Few of the students had ever been outside the United States. Many are the first members of their families to go to college. Unlike students from wealthier families, none grew up with the worldview, let alone the finances, to spend vacations or semesters abroad.

And yet here they were, tooling in a cramped van down a crowded expressway in China, en route from Beijing to the neighboring city of Tianjin, to spend a day at the Caterpillar Electric Power Division plant in the free trade zone just outside the city.

Some of these students had worked at Caterpillar in Peoria to earn school money. Now they were about to walk around the floor of a Cat plant in China, learning how a company like Caterpillar adapts to the Chinese environment.

This is my idea of global education.

Unlike many college foreign programs, this was no quick jaunt—no two-week trip to Paris to be given quick lectures in English by American professors. By the time these students come back, the four men and three women will have spent three months learning Mandarin at the Shenzhen Polytechnic College, a large three-year school in Shenzhen, the instant city (a fishing village 30 years ago, now a boom town of 13 million) next door to Hong Kong. They will also take courses in Chinese business, taught by Chinese teachers, and will intern at a company in Shenzhen.

None of them will ever be the same again. Some may end up working in China—but most told me they wanted to stay in the Peoria area, which means that the companies that employ them will have in-house knowledge on how the most dynamic country in the global economy really works.

Retooling for the Global Age
I first learned about this program when I was in Peoria, researching The Heartland Partnership and the cooperative civic efforts underway to retool the city for the global age. Several people told me that Illinois Central College was part of this collaborative program and urged me to take a look.

Up on the campus above the river, I found Dr. John Erwin, ICC president, somewhat jet-lagged. He was just back from China, he said—not something I expected to hear from a community college president.

Dr. Erwin told me that, in 1998, Caterpillar wanted to set up a training center for its dealers and technicians, to assure that anyone selling Cat equipment could also repair it. ICC signed a contract with Cat to house the center and help teach the program, with students spending eight weeks studying practical physics and other courses, followed by an eight-week internship at a Cat dealership.

The program was a success, so Caterpillar asked ICC to set up similar programs in countries where Cat does business, including China. In 2001, a delegation from Shenzhen Polytech visited Peoria. This led ICC to set up two programs with Chinese colleges, in Shenzhen and Xiamen.

That, in turn, led to the student exchange program, a separate project funded by the Department of Education’s Business and Education program. Begun five years ago, it sends five to 10 students, chosen competitively, to China. Most of the time is spent in Shenzhen, where they live in dorms at the Polytechnic. When they aren’t studying, they do internships—until recently at Bosch Corp., in the sprinkler division that Bosch bought from Peoria-based L.R. Nelson Co.

“I Never Dreamed I’d Ever Be Here”
But before all this work, the students get a lightning tour of major Chinese cities, to get an overview of that amazing country. The first stop was a small city named Changle (pronounced Chang-luh), and a day at Fujian Jinjiang Technology Co., a highly-automated mill spinning polymer pellets into different grades of nylon thread, mostly used for sportswear. It was a different world—scenic, with the buildings set among gardens, but not exactly up to Western labor and environmental regulations. The factories smelled slightly of some unidentified chemical, and puddles of water stood on the floor—to keep the temperature constant, we were told. Most of the factory hands were peasants who had migrated to Changle to earn money to send back home to their villages. The employees work mostly seven-day weeks, with just two days off per month, live in housing on the factory grounds, and would work more if they could. Turnover, I gathered, is high.

The Chinese work hard and play hard. In the evening, the Jin Jiang CEO, a dynamo named Wu Daobin, hosted an enormous Chinese feast, a challenge for honest Illinois stomachs, but a lesson in how China mixes business with pleasure.

From this 21st-century factory, we drove briefly through the 19th century—a tattered farm village outside Changle—to the very 21st-century Fuzhou airport and a flight to Beijing, the teeming Chinese capital. On the first night there, I walked with two students down the street to the Forbidden City. As we strolled beneath the mammoth walls, one of the students, who grew up in a tiny town outside Peoria, said, “I never dreamed I’d ever be here.”

The students toured the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, of course, and spent a day on the Great Wall, a couple of hours by van north of Beijing. They wandered the streets, toured back alleys, practiced their Chinese and sampled the regional foods for sale—scorpions, worms, sheep testicles, chicken legs, deep-fried caterpillars and other exotica—for sale at the city’s Night Market. There was a McDonald’s a block away, but these young Peorians were taking every chance to dive into China.

A Serious Contingent
China may be the most relaxed communist dictatorship I’ve ever seen. Young Chinese are easy to meet and easy to talk with. The students struck up friendships everywhere they went, getting to practice their Chinese even if the young Chinese mostly wanted to practice their English.

I suppose it would have been easy and natural for them to while away the long van trips with computer games. But this was a serious contingent. In idle moments, notebooks—ones made of paper, not circuits—came out, and the students practiced their Chinese calligraphy or challenged each other on vocabulary.

One night the students had dinner with the New Yorker correspondent in Beijing. The next day, they were off to Tianjin to tour the Caterpillar plant making power systems—one of 15 Cat facilities in China, one of 124 worldwide, one of about 100 western companies in Tianjin. The manager, a German, told the students why the factory is in Tianjin (to be in the free trade zone), how he has to train Chinese workers to work in teams, and the reality of the Chinese challenge to a complacent West.

“In the West,” he said, “young people want to have a good, fun-filled life. In China, young people want a good job. They really look up to businessmen. They’re willing to work.”

This, I think, may be the most important part of the students’ lives in China—not the skyscrapers of boom towns or the splendor of the Great Wall, but a first-hand, up-close look at a country and a people emerging from centuries of poverty, tyranny and humiliation, now absolutely determined to seize their one chance at prosperity and a place in the world. It’s an ambitious country, a dead-serious society, and it’s going to challenge America’s whole way of doing business.

China still may fail. But if it succeeds, it will change the world. For all we know, it may dominate the 21st century. At the least, what’s happening in China will have a huge impact on America, the Midwest and Peoria. Because of this exchange program, Peoria will be armed with a cadre of young workers who have spent three intensive months getting a front-row seat on the future. iBi