When the Father of Modern China Offered Henry Ford a Job

In a 1924 letter, Chinese political leader Sun Yatsen invited the automobile mogul to his country, urging him to help create “a new industrial system.”
Letter from Sun Yat-sen to Henry Ford. (Ford Motors/screenshot)

The father of modern China once invited Henry Ford to China to create a “new industrial system,” to help the then-struggling country. Sun Yatsen, who founded the Nationalist Party and helped to overthrow the ruling Qing dynasty, wrote a letter in 1924 asking Ford to visit South China, where “much of the intelligence, energy and wealth of this country can be found.”

I know and I have read of your remarkable work in America. And I think that you can do similar work in China on a much vaster and more significant scale. In a sense it may be said that your work in America has been more individual and personal, whereas here in China you would have an opportunity to express and embody your­ mind and ideals in the enduring form of a new industrial system.

Without economic development, China was in danger of becoming the cause of the next world war, Sun added ominously, and it is “more or less hopeless to expect much” aid from the “Governments of the Powers,” a reference to the Allied powers that triumphed in World War I.

“There is much more to hope, in my opinion, from a dynamic worker like yourself, and this is why I invite you to visit us in South China, in order to study, at first hand, what is undoubtedly one of the greatest problems of the Twentieth Century,” Sun wrote.

Here is Sun’s full letter, which was given to journalists in Hong Kong on Sunday night by Ford Motors, whose chief executive Alan R. Mulally and David Schoch, president of Asia Pacific, are in town hoping to become an approved taxi cab supplier for the city. (Mullally, in case you’re wondering, wouldn’t comment on recent rumors he might leave the company to head Microsoft or Boeing beyond saying: “I’m very happy serving Ford.”)

Henry Ford somewhat curtly declined via his secretary. “Thank you for the kind invitation,” his response read, but “Mr. Ford has made no plans for visiting China in the very near future.”

China, of course, has gone on to dominate global manufacturing in part because of their reliance on the very assembly lines that were Ford’s brainchild, but not before suffering through decades of poverty, turmoil and famine in the nearly 90 years since Sun’s letter was sent. Ford, on the other hand, has badly lagged General Motors in developing its business in China. Had Henry Ford traveled to China to help organize the country’s industrialization in the 1920s, surely history would have been very different.

Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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