On our fourth day in Beijing, during my recent political and cultural exchange with the American Council of Young Political Leaders, I was chosen “Leader of the Day.” We were to meet with high-level staff at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, a leading commissioner and member of the People’s Congress, the head of Beijing’s All China Youth Federation and the U.S. Embassy. In the evening we would have our first formal banquet, hosted by the deputy director of the All China Youth Federation, where we would experience the Chinese custom of receiving and giving toasts – in the form of speeches.

As Leader of the Day, I sat face to face with dignitaries or directly to their right at U-shaped meetings and at banquets. U-shaped meetings are particularly unique in China. The meeting room is set with plush carpets and rugs, a beautiful piece of Chinese art — often, in the ancient tradition, depicting the natural environment — is set behind the seats of honor and deep comfortable velvet chairs are positioned in a U. There are two chairs at the front for the host and Leader of the Day. Tables between each chair hold beautiful teacups that are refilled continuously throughout the meeting by well-dressed wait staff.

At each meeting I would listen to the host’s opening remarks and make a speech on behalf of our delegation. I would then ask the first question and facilitate the discussion. I quickly learned how to mirror my Chinese peers’ interaction with the translator as I launched into my first speech, pausing at intervals equal to the pauses made by our Chinese meeting host. While these meetings felt very staged, the interactions with Chinese elected officials were at times informal, deep and authentic.

About the American Council of Young Political Leaders

A bipartisan group of young political leaders and the U.S. State Department created the American Council of Young Political Leaders, ACYPL, in the midst of the Cold War to introduce young American leaders to their counterparts in other countries and to foster international relationships that would benefit U.S. interests overseas. ACYPL has sent small delegations to China for 37 years. In fact, when President Richard Nixon visited China, only one person on his staff had been there: an ACYPL alum. The author, Lauren McLean, a member of the Boise City Council, spent 13 days in China in June with a bipartisan group of U.S. political leaders.

On that fourth day, we had nearly two hours scheduled with Ren Ziping to discuss environmental policy in the U.S. and China. Mr. Ren opened the meeting with a long speech that highlighted the importance of people-to-people exchanges, learning about the culture and politics of other places, their honor in hosting us and some general information about his ministry’s focus. These speeches are very formal, and because Chinese is what I’d consider a flowery language, I tried hard to reciprocate with English that reflected the image-filled translation of his welcome.

I opened my speech with a long thank you for all that we’d experienced in our few days in his country. Leaning on the extensive research I’d completed on Chinese history, culture and the specifics of our local destinations in China, I shared with him how similar the geography of China and the U.S. was in terms of its size, variety of landscapes and natural beauty. I shared with him that Idaho is home to beautiful mountains and rivers, much like the province in Qinghai that we would soon visit.

I used my love for mountain landscapes and the American public’s appreciation for public lands, to create a shared foundation between us from which I then pointed out the conflicts that we experience in the States regarding air quality, water quality and the protection of public lands. I closed with how beautiful I found his city of Beijing, the friendliness of his people and my excitement to see more of the mountains and rivers of China while learning about their customs, culture and politics.

At the close of the speech, it’s expected that the Leader of the Day ask the first question before opening it to other members of the U.S. delegation. Our Chinese host had counseled us to be “less direct,” in the Chinese way, when asking questions on difficult subjects. To attempt this, I opened my question with a nod to the recent agreement on climate between China and the U.S. and then jumped right in with a question on everyone’s mind: “What are you doing about air quality in Beijing?”

Nobody can deny that there is an air quality issue in Beijing. It is ever present in the smog, in your lungs and therefore in your mind. His answer to this question took over 20 minutes and revealed the depth of his knowledge on air pollution and mitigation. His staff jumped in occasionally too, providing spontaneity to what had previously felt staged and a look into the thinking and expectations of younger Chinese people.

Pollutant in the form of particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller which can cause health problems when circulating in the air at certain levels. I learned several things during this meeting. I’d heard our host talk about flying dust for several days when we asked him about things such as all the new trees planted throughout the city. Yet I had not seen evidence of dust storms. But we learned that flying dust is actually the direct translation of the casual word the Chinese use for the pollutant PM 2.5. I loved it, as the visual image was so in line with my experience of their language and culture thus far.

I learned that the central government created new standards and Beijing, like other cities, was creating policies to implement them such as:

  • Trucks are only allowed to drive into the city in the wee hours of the morning (I learned later that the S. PM 2.5 monitoring station’s pollution counts reflect this). Follow @BeijingAir on Twitter for updates.
  • There is a lottery for the right to buy a car.
  • License plates begin with certain numbers that indicate the days of the week the car is allowed to drive, establishing a system to limit the number of cars on the clogged roads.
  • The government will actually shut down manufacturing plants when necessary, an extreme step to clear the air.

Interestingly, Mr. Ren’s staff explained that the growing middle class in China has created the political pressure to protect air and water quality. In a city like Beijing that has experienced 10 percent growth annually for years, millions of people have found higher paying jobs and a new standard of living. Their basic needs being met, they look to quality of life issues and the city’s pollution has become a focus.

I began calling on other members of our delegation to ask questions. Through this Q&A, the various political ideologies in our group emerged. A Republican from Wyoming who wants to sell more coal to China learned that the government has passed policies that limit the amount of coal they’ll purchase in the future because of its tie to climate and air quality issues. A Democrat from Minnesota learned that implementing environmental laws in response to air quality, water quality and the concerns of the rising middle class has been difficult, as might be expected in this nation focused in recent decades on development, economy and catching up with the West.

Lauren McLean / Great Wall of China

Courtesy of the author
Lauren McLean running on the Great Wall of China, smog visible in the background.

In closing, I asked the minister what he considered to be China’s highest priority regarding environmental protection and their nation’s biggest challenge. He seemed in no rush to end our meeting, and launched into a long answer that got as technical as particulate matter, NOx and SOx, while also being values-driven, as passionate as any conservationist’s plea to protect clean water, wild mountains and wildlife.

At the end of the meeting we gave and received gifts and I learned that Tang Huaqing, one Mr. Ren’s staff members, who had jumped in as often as she could to discuss the impact that student and middle class interests are having on the government’s attention to conservation, will be a Fulbright student at UC Davis beginning this Fall. I look forward to welcoming her to Boise.

This two-hour exchange and my role in it left me mentally exhausted. Listening attentively to Chinese and then to its translation, posing questions in culturally appropriate manners and facilitating others to do the same was harder — yet more fun — than I expected. Luckily, we now had a full two hours to eat!

As we filed back onto the bus, our bipartisan delegation was as ready to eat as I was. We were perhaps more diverse than most rooms of political leaders in the U.S. We were split evenly by political party and gender. Just a few days prior, we had met for the first time in Washington, D.C. for State Department and Chinese Embassy briefings. The three Republicans included a county commissioner from Wyoming, a legislator from outside Nashville and the chief of staff to Boeing’s head of governmental affairs. The three Democrats included the president of Birmingham’s City Council, the head of Target’s state and local government affairs and myself. Our escort was an independent from Arizona, an ACYPL alumna.

After our 14-hour flight to Beijing, we had met Zhou Ji, a leader in the All China Youth Federation who had planned our trip and would spend the next 13 days with us. He served as our translator, tour guide and cultural guide. Zhou knows the U.S. well and enjoyed participating in frank conversations about the differences in our forms of government, differences between our people and our reaction to their conception of governmental control. He counseled us on how best to ask the questions we had. Together, we all experienced the Chinese interior province of Qinghai, a place Zhou had never visited himself.

ACYPL in China, 2015

Courtesy of the author
American Council of Young Political Leaders 2015 group in China.

Zhou became a friend over the course of hours-long bus rides between meetings in the various cities we visited. It was often the back of the bus conversations with Zhou where we digested what we’d heard and experienced during our meetings with high level state officials, policy people, local leaders and even students and members of the All China Youth Federation.

After 13 days in three cities, several mountain ranges and river valleys, we’d had the opportunity to hear about China from senior government officials, CEOs, tour guides, public servants being groomed for political leadership and university students.

Back in Boise, I’m often asked about lessons from my time in China that I might apply to governing at the City Council level. With an exchange like this, it’s not just one event, one bit of knowledge, but the cumulative experience of a vastly different culture and political system. I value the way we’re elected in the United States, the way we debate, the way we make decisions independently. But I also now understand better the ways that China is rising. Her students have hopes to change their nation and I believe that they’ll become an even bigger presence in the global scene, impacting economies all the way down to our own local level.

It may have taken Nixon to go to China in 1972, but now a generation of U.S. political leaders have established ties to a sometimes rival superpower in the East. When the Chinese come to do business in Boise, we will be ready to roll out the U shaped meeting along with a good dose of Western hospitality.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.