I went to China courtesy of the EastWest Institute, founded in 1980 to increase trust and cooperation in a dangerous world.

It was a little embarrassing to be invited along.  I had never been to China.  I speak no Chinese.  I am aware only of the first names (which it turns out are actually what we would call the “last names”) of a few of their leaders.  It is a civilization with 5,000 years of history, of which I am all but entirely ignorant.  About my only real connection to its culture is an enthusiasm for chopsticks.

Our delegation consisted of three Democrats and three Republicans plus some astonishingly accomplished, personable staff.  Among them: the Institute’s “Vice President for the Strategic Trust Building Initiative,” author of three books, fluent in Chinese and Russian, who had previously served nine years in the U.S. embassies in Beijing and Moscow . . . a former Singaporean political journalist with her masters from Columbia . . . a woman with a masters in Asian studies tasked with making my Amtrak reservations (talk about overqualified) . . . and the recently graduated Chinese-American drum major of the Yale College marching band (which is my way of sneaking in the results of this year’s game).

We were embarked on the EastWest Institute’s sixth U.S.-China High-Level Political Party Leaders Dialogue, flying to Beijing on a private Boeing 737 on loan from EastWest board chairman Ross Perot, Jr.

From the EastWest web site:

The U.S.-China High-Level Political Party Leaders Dialogue aims to increase contact, familiarity and trust between Chinese and U.S. political elites and maintain a political backchannel that can transmit sensitive high-level messages on critical issues affecting the bilateral relationship. At the December 2012 meeting in Utah, Colorado and Washington, D.C., senior Chinese Communist Party officials and prominent Democrats and Republicans exchanged ideas and discussed prominent policy concerns, in the hopes of promoting understanding and trust between the United States and China.

(Their China initiative includes, separately, exchanges to improve cybersecurity and improved military relations.)

With us was the Institute’s co-founder and CEO John Mroz, “one of the six remaining liberal Republicans,” as he puts it — “a Rockefeller Republican” — and a whirlwind of positive energy.  He had to grab a midnight flight to Moscow halfway through our trip, but not before I learned stuff listening to him I never even knew I didn’t know.  E.g., did you know how important underseas cables are to the Internet?  And how ships’ anchors, occasionally slipping from their locks, would accidentally drag harbor bottoms and sever them?  (John convened a conference that led to better anchor locks.)

On the Republican side, we had the grandson of a U.S. president highly regarded in China . . . and a long-time Beijing resident who brought them this U.S. Chamber of Commerce document he had co-authored, assessing ways China could participate in the more than $8 trillion of infrastructure modernization it is estimated the U.S. will have to do by 2030 (so gosh, my Republican friends, shouldn’t we get started?) . . . and my counterpart — and college classmate — the treasurer of the Republican National Committee, pictured here, who jovially put up with me the entire way.  Which is saying something.

On our side, we were led by a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee . . . and joined by a real estate developer who shortly after graduating from Georgia Tech, without a nickel, managed to found his own city in 1959.  (Home now to 35,000 residents, it was named by BusinessWeek “Georgia’s Best Place To Raise Kids 2013.”  He also co-founded the Central Eurasia Leadership Academy in Istanbul, has sponsored programs to educate young women in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is a B-school professor, chief fundraiser for his church — and about 100 other things.)

Perhaps my biggest take-aways from trip were:

+ We should pay attention.  There are four times as many of them and their kids are really smart.  (You’ve seen the latest test scores?)  Yet how many of us know much about China?  One of our number came home saying that he had had no idea.  His thinking about China was now very different, and — if I properly caught his drift — not nearly as hostile.  Despite the competitive challenge, much good can come from cooperation with a prosperous, successful China.

+ And yes, they know all about their pollution and carbon problems — see last week’s link to to my air quality app.  But if they’ve shown anything, it’s that when they set themselves a task, odds are decent they will achieve it.  (Perhaps you saw the Olympics?)  So China’s progress for the next 35 years — last week’s other link — which will surely include air quality improvement and green house gas reduction, may be as dramatic as that of the past 35.  It had better be: if they don’t get the carbon thing right, we’re all cooked.

+ How can there be billionaires in “communist” China?  Whatever happened to “from each according to his ability to each according to his need?”  Do they really need all those late-model BMW’s on the traffic-packed roads?  What on earth would Mao — or Marx — have thought?  Their basic answer is that communism remains the long-term, theoretical goal . . . but that any measures that serve to improve the lives of the country’s 1.365 billion people are stepping stones to that now very distant vision.  Hence the Third Plenum’s recommendation that “market forces” be stepped up from “a fundamental factor” in allocating resources to “the decisive factor.”

+ One-party rule is not our desired system, obviously; and can lead to horrific things, obviously; but the Communist Party of China, with its 85 million members (just 6% of the country!), is at present, at least, mainly intent on solving problems and making lives better.  And while it presents a united front to the world — certainly more so than we Democrats and Republicans do — there are differences of opinion and debates within the party.  For example, just days before our trip, the Chinese military released a 100-minute video “with an ominous sound track” that (as reported here) “accuses the US of trying to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s control of the People’s Liberation Army and impose US values on China.”

Cutting from crude graphics of US dollar bills, to shots of the Statue of Liberty and blurry footage of US leaders, the video bemoans the fall of the Soviet Union and warns that China faces a similar fate if it fails to counter Washington’s nefarious efforts to infiltrate Chinese society.”

We asked a high ranking Party official what we should make of this.  He said, tellingly, I thought: “You have your Tea Party, we have ours.”

+ The country has enormous challenges — air quality and corruption and meeting the needs of 1.365 billion people prime among them — but it is astonishing what they’ve accomplished in 35 years (and to think of what they may accomplish in the next 35 if they don’t screw it up).  After a couple of days in Beijing we flew to Nanjing, of which I had only barely heard.  (Iris Chang s The Rape of Nanking, recounts the 1937 slaughter of more than 300,000 Chinese, many of them women and children, as well as thousands of rapes, by the invading Japanese.  The memorial at Nanjing, which we got to tour, is . . . in its literal sense, stunning.)  Well, there I was, in a room on the 41st floor of the Sofitel Nanjing — Nanjing has a Sofitel??? — and 41 wasn’t even the top floor, and it was as elegant a room as any I’ve ever stayed in — yet calling back to friends in the U.S., most had never even heard of Nanjing.  The next day we drove out to an industrial park — one of 100’s around the country, they assured us — that housed 500,000 people, 300,000 of them students at 15 universities within the park.  The scale model of the 10-square-mile park filled a ginormous atrium.  “How many separate buildings are there?” I asked.  They didn’t know.  At least not off the top of anyone’s head.  The answer, as best I could translate the body language, was . . . too many to count.  Except instead of jelly beans in a jar, these were recently-constructed buildings.  One of which housed the 1,000-employee Nanjing operation of a New Jersey company (with 100 employees at the home office) that provides most of the world’s genetic researchers with the genes they need for their experiments.  And here’s the punchline: Nineteen years ago this entire industrial park was . . . farmland.

+ The people I met were really nice.  I’m sure there are awful Chinese, as there are awful Americans, Slavs, and Swedes.  But by and large, don’t you find, people are people?  Who mostly want roughly the same things?  Including respect, and the feeling that their concerns have been heard and that they’ve been treated fairly?

+ If we could form, in effect, a “G2” — a constructive partnership of the world’s only superpower and the world’s leading “rising power” — it could lead to a significantly more secure, prosperous world.  “But,” I asked, “wouldn’t the other G countries — in the G8 and the G20 — get all jealous and, like, ‘who elected you king?'”  The answer I got — at least from the experts advocating this — was that, actually, no: those other countries would welcome the cooperation and leadership.

+ The Chinese take democracy seriously.  Again, not our form of democracy, but the stuff of a recently published book we were given — my jaw drops to find it here on Amazon, soon to be delivered through your open window by octocopter drone — The Strength of Democracy: How Will the CPC March Ahead.  From the flap:

Some people believe the CPC is not a party that embraces democracy.  Is this true?  Others believe that the people’s congress system is not really democratic and the political consultation system is a “political farce.”  Is this also true? . . . This book provides vivid stories, classical cases and reliable historical evidence to respond . . . It aims to tell readers that the history of the CPC (more than 90 years) is also a history of fighting for and building democracy.

I have not read this book.  A certain TV drama about a meth-cooking high school chemistry teacher — the last five episodes of which I finally finished yesterday at 5:30 am — was somehow more compelling.  But I think the Chinese have earned the right to be listened to and taken seriously, not so much because we would ever consider abandoning our system for theirs (nor are they suggesting we should), but because theirs may be better suited to China’s needs, at least for two or three more decades, than we commonly think.  If we think about it at all.  I hope to find time to read it; but perhaps one of you might and share your thoughts?

+ In China, 8 is a lucky number, 4 is an unlucky number, so on days when air quality is particularly bad and cars with licence plates ending in 8 can’t drive, traffic is relatively light — because so many people prefer plates with that number — while on the days when the 4’s are sidelined, it’s heavy, because relatively few people accept a licence plate ending in 4.  It’s not clear to me how pronounced this effect really is; but everyone agreed that rich Chinese solve the problem by owning two cars, so one is always allowed on the road.

+ Boy, there were a lot of banquets.  Each with a printed menu.  For example:

Assorted Cold Dishes

Double-Boiled Wild Mushroom with Radish

Pan-fried Steak with Three kinds of Dressings

Braised Shrimps with Tofu Pudding

Braised Dried Scallop with Melon

Deep-fried chicken Wing with Assorted Delicacies

Stir-fried Seasonal Vegetables

Three Kinds of Colour From Chinese Style Noodle in Soup

Brownie with Fruits


Tomorrow: Resisting The Temptation To Pitch Them On Borealis



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