The Portman Ritz-Carlton is named after the Atlanta architects and developers who designed the Shanghai Centre, which it anchors. Jack Portman, vice chair of Portman Holdings, spoke at a Georgia Tech business event in Shanghai this week.
Georgia Tech’s President G. P. “Bud” Peterson, seated left, signed an agreement in a ceremony in Shenzhen, China, on Dec. 2 to create a new collaboration with the city of Shenzhen and Tianjin University. Co-signers with Peterson are Vice Mayor Yihuan Wu of Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government, center, and Tianjin University President Denghua Zhong, right. Photo by Georgia Tech.

Editor’s note: Trevor Williams is reporting this week from China. 

When Georgia Tech traveled to Ireland last fall for a football game against Boston College, only 85 players could suit up for the game. The team took over a hundred student athletes anyway — and had to help about 80 percent of them get passports beforehand.

This week, the university’s basketball team is in a much bigger country with a much smaller team, but the situation is much the same.

Of 13 Tech basketball players facing off against UCLA in the Pac-12 game in Shanghai, China, this weekend, most of the team’s 11 American citizens needed new documents to head across the Pacific.

For Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, this exemplifies the purpose behind his mission in China this week: Connecting a world-class research institution with the world’s second largest economy, opening the students’ minds and ensuring the university’s continued relevance.

“It could be just a basketball game, but for us we’re trying to do much, much more,” Dr. Peterson told Global Atlanta in an interview on the sidelines of a Georgia Tech-sponsored business event at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai.

Global Perspectives, Georgia Focus

More than half of Georgia Tech graduates leave college having had an international study or work experience, a statistic that dwarfs most public institutions in the U.S., Dr. Peterson said. 

That’s a strategic focus for Tech, largely because of its mandate to help drive economic growth in a state with 15 Fortune 500 global headquarters.

[pullquote]“If we’re going to support these companies, we need to be global in our perspectives.”[/pullquote]

“If we’re going to support these companies, we need to be global in our perspectives,” Dr. Peterson said.

It was a fitting statement after having moderated a panel with Chinese CEOs hosted by the AmCham Shanghai that focused on artificial intelligence, robotics and generally how companies can “win the talent war” in a work world that’s being constantly upended by technology.

And that was just the latest event in a packed schedule since Dr. Peterson touched down in China Sunday. In four days, he’s been in four different Chinese cities, every night arriving at a new hotel after 11 p.m.

That’s because while the basketball game is an excuse to raise the Tech flag, it’s also just the tip of the iceberg in a much broader portfolio of collaborations with China.

Shenzhen Campus

It’s no secret that the university is a magnet for Chinese students, who have flocked to U.S. universities in recent years, cracking the 1 million mark for the first time in 2016, according to the annual Open Doors report. Many excel in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and are undertaking advanced research in graduate-level programs.

What’s less known is that Georgia Tech will soon begin offering master’s degrees within China through a partnership with Tianjin University at a new joint campus being built in with local government funding and support in the bustling technology and manufacturing hub in Shenzhen.

The partnership was announced last December, and this week Dr. Peterson was able to visit the 40-acre plot, a tree-filled valley where plans call for buildings to open up by 2020 near international campuses from other premier institutions.

While they wait, the local government is renovating three other buildings so the partnership can start churning out graduates in electrical computer engineering,  Some 800 are expected to enroll by the time the new campus opens, with that number advancing to 3,000 by 2030.

Students will come from China and abroad, with Tianjin University providing undergraduate degrees and Georgia Tech offering graduate degrees. But the campus will also be a home for the Georgia Tech China Summer Program and provide a soft landing for students who want low-hassle international exposure.

Dr. Peterson said building campuses is not something that’s in the strategic plan. Georgia Tech isn’t looking to do the task of educating other countries’’ students on its own.

But when opportunities for collaboration arise, the institution seizes them — as it did with its campus in Metz, France.

“We shouldn’t do anything outside of Atlanta that we can do better in Atlanta,” he said. “Our job is to create international cross-pollenization to give an international experience to our students.”

That’s already happening with the China property: SF Express, a major Chinese delivery company, has funded $2.5 million in logistics research so far, with some 50 students already taking part under faculty mentorship. Tim Tian, an SF executive, is another prominent Georgia Tech alum.

Courting Alibaba

Even before the campus, Georgia Tech was already opening doors and introducing its home state to influential Chinese companies.

But this week crystallized those efforts, as economic development officials from Georgia and metro Atlanta built a business mission around the game. After fanning out for meetings in various cities, they converged in Shanghai Friday for a Georgia Tech banquet that will welcome alumni from around Asia.

Early in the trip, Georgia Tech and UCLA players and administrators visited Alibaba, the e-commerce and payments giant that has sponsored the PAC-12 game for three years.

Co-founder and billionaire Joe Tsai, who just bought the Brooklyn Nets, shot around with the Tech players in a local gym and gave a presentation about Alibaba’s complex and interwoven businesses to all assembled.

In a private meeting, Mr. Tsai also listened to Dr. Peterson tell the story of Atlanta’s innovation ecosystem, which is largely driven by Georgia Tech’s growing presence in Midtown.

Alibaba announced in October that it would spent $15 billion building research and development centers around the world by 2020, including one in the U.S.

Dr. Peterson seized the chance to pitch Atlanta.

“We extended an invitation for them to visit us and come see what we’re doing in Technology Square. I think Joe Tsai was intrigued by the idea,” Dr. Peterson said.

At the CEO forum Thursday, the Tech president also spoke with James Liang Jianzhang, another billionaire and founder of travel platform Ctrip — also said to be looking to the global market for growth. Mr. Liang is a Georgia Tech alum whose company employs some 30,000 people.

Dr. Peterson was introduced by Jack Portman, vice chair of Portman Holdings, the Atlanta-based developer affiliated with the Portman architecture firm in Atlanta.

Mr. Portman, a Tech grad himself, spearheaded the firm’s entry into China in the early 1980s, putting an office in Hong Kong just after China opened to the world. The Portman Ritz-Carlton anchors the Shanghai Centre, one of the first mixed-use developments in the country. Mr. Portman attributes his China focus to an elective he took at Tech on the country’s Cultural Revolution.

Geopolitical Backdrop

The Georgia Tech visit coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s stop in China during a 10-day Asia trip.

He was welcomed with pomp by Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Mr. Trump has praised as a shrewd and strong leader despite consistently ripping China on its trade practices.

Mr. Trump seemed to soften his approach during the visit, saying he doesn’t “blame” China for out-dealing the U.S. for years.He called for a remedy to the trade imbalance while stopping short of using the relationship as a bargaining chip in his other objective: progress in curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The two leaders announced a raft of deals worth about $250 billion, many of them already in the works and some reportedly left open to later editing. Some analysts said that Mr. Xi fulfilling promises to allow better market access for U.S. firms would do more to help even out the trade balance. A day after the announcement, China announced it would loosen controls on ownership in the financial sector. 

Without mentioning the U.S. president, Dr. Peterson told Global Atlanta that protectionism and a fear of immigrants won’t make the U.S. more prosperous.

Dr. Peterson sees the global economy working in the same way he treats his various colleges: One can’t improve at the expense of the other.

“It’s the same thing on an international scale. Yes, this is competition. I want to make the U.S. strong. But I don’t want to make the U.S. strong at the expense of other countries. We don’t want to pillage.”

He believes that while public institutions should be focused on connecting their own students to opportunities, it should be also be easier for “brilliant” foreign students to find visas to stay and work in the U.S. after graduation, he said.

Even the fact that more are going back to their own countries isn’t a bad thing, he said.

“The fact that we’re educating a lot of technologists and engineers and scientists going back to their own countries, I view as a positive. Those countries are going to be better and we’re going to be better for it.”

Damper on the event?

While the Trump visit was limited to Beijing, an odd incident in Hangzhou cast a bit of a shadow on the celebratory atmosphere of the week.

Early in the week, three UCLA players were reportedly arrested by Chinese police on apparent suspicion of shoplifting at a Louis Vuitton store, various news sources have reported.

Reuters said they were unable to leave their hotel as of Thursday and will not play in Saturday’s game. Georgia Tech players were briefly questioned in relation to the incident but were quickly determined not to have been involved, the AJC reported. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...