China’s Economic and Cultural Presence in Knoxville Grows

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

Economically, educationally, and culturally, the Chinese presence in the Knoxville area is on the rise. Consider:

• At least five China-based or owned companies now have operations here with employment totaling about 400 at plants that make auto parts, footwear, plastic goods, and tire-making equipment.

• The number of students from China enrolled at the University of Tennessee has grown from 401 to 599 over the past five years and now represents 43 percent of the university’s international students.

• The mission of a Confucius Institute sponsored by an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education is to “enhance the learning of the Chinese language and culture in our region.” A Moon Festival celebration hosted by the institute on Friday evening, Sept, 18 at Pellissippi State Community College will feature Chinese traditional music, singing, and dancing. (For more information go to

All this at a time when relations between the U.S. and China are strained, to say the least. Cyberattacks and reciprocal charges of unfair trade practices are getting headlines, as are the recent Chinese economic slowdown and currency devaluation that have been widely blamed for a big dip in the U.S. stock market.

Yet this very impact suggests that the old saying about the rest of the world catching a cold when the U.S. sneezes may have been stood upon its head. And the assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Clint Brewer, asserts that, “despite the recent slowdown, China is looking like the Japan of 30 years ago. We will very likely see more and more investment from China flowing into the U.S. in the coming years.”

Based in Knoxville, the founder and executive director of the TN-China Network, Elizabeth Rowland, points out that “several positive developments in the past year have a dramatic impact on outbound Chinese investment.” These mostly involve “a loosening of regulations on the part of Chinese government departments, including the elimination of an approval requirement for investment in non-sensitive industries.”

The very existence of a TN-China Network here fostered by Rowland’s expertise in this field is perhaps the single strongest testament to Knoxville’s emergence as a center of China-related activity.

Rowland is the 36-year-old daughter of Mike (now deceased) and Ann Rowland, who were partners in the Rowland & Rowland law firm that was also a pioneer in downtown restoration with its distinctive offices in Gay Street’s Century Building, which they owned.

After working for former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. both before and during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign against Bob Corker, Elizabeth Rowland opted to get a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Relations. She then set out for Beijing to work for the American Chamber of Commerce in China where she edited a publication aimed at U.S. companies doing business there. A move to the Beijing office of the prestigious Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling followed, to work on Chinese projects for its clients.

Rowland might well still be in China except for the fact that in 2013 her mother developed a health problem that brought her back to Knoxville, and that’s when her vision for a TN-China Network germinated. Its mission is to: serve as a first-stop information resource for Tennessee-China business; foster state-wide networking for Tennessee and Chinese businesses; help Tennessee become a place that ”gets” China through informative events and publications; build Tennessee’s brand in China as an investment destination and source of innovative exports.

Rowland believes that the state department of ECD’s Chinese representatives have been much more focused on exports than investment, and that needs to change. “Chinese investment in this country is growing astronomically,” she says. “This year we’ve gotten three Chinese companies without even focusing on it. Just imagine what we could be doing if we really focused on it.”

ECD’s Brewer claims that, “During the Haslam administration, TNECD has recruited 10 projects that have committed to create more than 1,300 jobs in the state.” But there would seem to be at least an implicit acknowledgment that it is less than satisfied with these results.

To wit, the state has recently terminated its contracts with the two firms that have represented Tennessee in China over the past several years. And Brewer reports that, “Currently, we are in an RFI {Request for Information} process for all our foreign offices.”

The RFI seems mainly aimed at eliciting responses from entities that already have a China presence. But it strikes me that Rowland and her network ( could have a role to play.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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