A few weeks into the 2013 session, after getting properly sworn in, I was told about a nonprofit organization that offers young leaders an opportunity to travel abroad to meet with leaders in other parts of the world. ACYPL, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, has been around for decades, though I'd never heard of it before, and has been sending young (ages 25-40) political leaders to all corners of the globe, and brings leaders from those far flung corners here to the U.S. The goal of ACYPL is to educate leaders about the culture, government, politics and business environment of their counterparts across the world. Each exchange is made up of an equal number of democrats and republicans – ACYPL is nonpartisan.
You cannot ask to be sent on an exchange, but must be nominated. I didn't know it at the time, but I was nominated twice, including once from a democratic representative from Delaware who I met last summer while speaking on a panel about Kentucky's 2013 Senate Bill 1 (the military e-voting bill I co-sponsored). A nomination is considered for up to two years while ACYPL decides which nominees to grant an exchange offer. In early 2014 I was offered a chance to join an exchange to China and Taiwan. I eagerly (if nervously) accepted!
We left for China on May 16th, beginning in Beijing, then traveled to Kunming, and finished in Taipei City, Taiwan. I'll spare you a play-by-play account of the 15 day trip, but I do want to share a few brief observations. I'll share a separate post about Taiwan.
Some of my thoughts on mainland China...
- For all the frustration we may have at our federal government leaders, of either party, our power at the ballot box to choose who leads us is as critical as it is woefully under appreciated. When you see how little influence the people of mainland China have on their government you have a whole new perspective on the value of free and fair elections.
- Communists can be kind and respectful people, but they have full faith in the power and effectiveness of their central government system.
- The Central Government communist system is both powerful and enormously ineffective. The Government appears to be filled with and perpetuated by those already in it, with vast gaps between the haves and the have nots. Strangely, few people we met were outspoken critics of the central government. I'll leave you to speculate on your own about why you think that is, but I believe people are afraid of speaking out. It was interesting to be in Beijing so close to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre - you wouldn't know it.
- The Chinese government blocks unfriendly news reports. One of my exchange colleagues reported that CNN (the only English-speaking broadcast channel we could see in mainland China) suddenly went black for a few minutes during a segment on something the government didn't want it's people to see. When the segment was over the feed reappeared.
- Both the U.S. and mainland China have the some of the same political issues. High unemployment. Expensive and inefficient healthcare. High cost of living (at least in Beijing and other metro/urban areas). Environmental policy is the biggest issue, at least at present. When in New York and looking down one of the long, straight streets you can see everything until the buildings blend together. In Beijing, on the best of days (and we were there during some of the clearest we could have hoped for) we could only see two blocks into the distance. Beijing's population, at over 20 million, is more than twice as big as New York City...strange to think how much is there that you can't see.
- We were told before we left the U.S., and again by the U.S. Embassy staff in Beijing, that from the moment we step off the plane in China that our cell phones, tablets, and laptops would be hacked by the Chinese government and observed. I've read that tech company CEO's don't take personal electronic devices to China with them due to that fear, and there have been reported cases of electronic corporate/government espionage brought about by devices taken to China, then brought back home and plugged into a corporate server. I didn't keep any finance apps on my gadgets when I left and I've wiped every device and changed every password since I've come home. Hopefully they'll realize how unimportant I am and ignore me altogether.
- Government buildings are completely empty. When you head to your local City Hall or the Capitol in Frankfort or D.C. you see people working, carrying paperwork, talking with co-workers in the hallways and office spaces. We entered a courtroom in Kunming and the equivalent of our Congress in Beijing and saw exactly squat. We encountered the official(s) set for our meeting, any associates they had, and the two young men or women who served everyone in the meeting tea (that's a distinct cultural difference). No workers. No legislators. No citizens. Just remember that the next time you complain. You can visit the capitol in Kentucky or Washington. Our Government is "of the people, by the people, for the people," and I've never been so thankful.
- Chinese food is different. Scroll to the bottom of this brief photo/video collage to see what I mean. I was getting better every day learning to eat with chopsticks, but I prefer the standard fork, spoon and knife.
- Chinese business professionals on our agenda were the most forthcoming with information about the country and its business/industrial climate. They were very reluctant to discuss details, and largely didn't. I can't tell if the cultural differences between the U.S. and China are the root cause of trade troubles or if the Chinese government is intentionally slow walking for reasons we don't know. The skeptical part of me believes the latter. Continuing these exchanges will hopefully erode the former*.
- * I'm not convinced these exchanges are actually doing that, at least in mainland China. On several occasions, during meetings with various government officials (we met with a chief economist, trade rep, a legislator, judges, etc.) our specific questions were dodged. I once asked an economist for a specific list of 2-3 things China would like to see from the United States and I all I got was a vague thanks for coming to Beijing and gratitude for ACYPL's 35 year partnership with China. We got the thanks-for-35-years-of-partnership bit at nearly every stop throughout mainland China.
- Intellectual Property Rights (patents, trademarks, etc.) are creating a problem in the U.S.-China relationship. For instance, China wants Boeing and other airplane manufacturers' IP related to materials and flight-related technologies. Often China refuses to allow manufacturers to sell to Chinese customers without a parallel deal on IP. Needless to say, American companies aren't willing to give up the IP they've invested millions (or billions) to develop and perfect. A textbook impasse.
- Tobacco is an enormous business in China and a huge opportunity for Kentucky farmers, though the in-country competition is significant. Kentucky's distillery industry exports to China are alive and well - people we met who don't speak any meaningful conversational English recognize a Maker's Mark bottle when they see it. Kentucky has current partnerships with China, including ties to Hopkinsville. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to visit those facilities. We were asked months before we left about what policy interests we have for potential study on the trip, I was curious about China's manufacturing and labor force – the make many if not most of the gadgets that are used to read this. Seeing those places was apparently not an option. I did make contact with a number of business leaders in Kunming that may provide future opportunities for relationships to grow between Kentucky and China businesses. Who knows.
- The Chinese authorities are clearly suspicious of the internet, and they deny the veracity of all information pertaining to China that is currently online. They see benefit and danger from the volume and haste of available information, but obviously err on the side of caution for their interests by blocking a number of services including Facebook and Twitter. China fears honest and accurate information will not win out online, that it would be overpowered by the dissension or misinformation that would exist and be perpetuated by the web without their control.
- As our discussions relate to similarities (in engaged youth, shrinking Agriculture economy jobs, poverty) the most jarring fact about what China faces is the immensity of its struggle. The youth population of China alone – the future of China – unengaged in the political process or not, dwarfs the entire population of the United States. With a total Chinese population of 1.63 Billion, imagine all of our problems in the U.S. only magnified six fold.
- We traveled throughout Beijing and Kunming (3 1/2 hours to the Southwest of Beijing by flight) and the only place in the whole country I wasn't allowed to take my cell phone was my own U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
- 14 hour flight with a 13 hour time difference between Beijing and home. It took the first 10-12 days to get used to it. It took just as long to readjust once I got home. I don't know how regular travelers between the two countries can handle it.