Translating politics

State Rep. Jeff Harris reflects on his recent trip as a delegate to China
Monday, January 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:25 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

We leave our sparkling new hotel in Xi’an, passing hundreds of facemask-wearing Chinese riding bicycles and pulling wheelbarrows. The smog/fog is terrible.

We reach an elevated highway. It’s elevated, we surmise, to preserve the farmland below in a country where only 10 percent of the land is arable. We’re on our way to a factory. Our states have lost manufacturing jobs overseas, and we want to see the competition up close.

The smog/fog grows worse. Our bus stops, trapped on the road by at least six car accidents. Why wasn’t the road closed? Why weren’t drivers told to take a different route? But life along the highway continues — a survey crew works by the light of a homemade torch, and other workers take a break in a makeshift tent.

Five hours later, we’re still on the bus, and we can’t see anything. Chinese music blares over the bus speakers. We turn around, never making it to the factory.

This is China: a paradox of neon and chrome buildings next to ancient streets. The future for China is now. Yet for all of China’s development, it remains a developing country. In a land of 500 million cell phones, 60 million people get by on a dollar a day.

W e know the drill by now. We are led through a drafty building to a formal conference room replete with expensive furniture and Chinese artwork, one of the warm rooms in the building.

We exchange handshakes and business cards with our Chinese counterparts — my bilingual card seldom fails to get an “Oh, Chinese!” response when I present it. Our group’s leader for this day and the Chinese leader sit at the head of the room, and our two groups face each other. The interpreters sit behind, notebooks in hand. Women in formal dress serve hot green tea in porcelain cups.

For the next hour, we take turns asking questions, hearing the response in Chinese, understanding the response in English and, time permitting, asking follow-up questions. The translation means we have about 30 to 45 minutes worth of discussion in an hour.

Time is precious. I mentally whittle my questions before speaking.

Though the form of the meetings becomes familiar, I never get over the opportunity we’ve been given. I also never forget I’m an American politician in a Communist country. “Why,” the party official asks me privately at dinner, “do you take so many notes?”

I’m determined to promote Missouri at every turn. By the end of the trip, at least 100 people have my business card. I’ve handed out State of Missouri pens, key chains, paperweights and Missouri flag lapel pins. I’ve gotten to know people who can help Missouri companies do business with China.

We see firsthand that China’s increasing standard of living means a ready market for our states’ goods and services. How long can the embarrassingly high $128 billion trade surplus continue? When a Chinese securities analyst says that the Chinese consumer automobile market offers the best opportunity for growth, I think of the Ford Hazelwood plant. I tell the agricultural secretary that Missouri raises cattle, catfish, soybeans, cotton and everything in between. We’ve got a real opportunity if China opens its doors. I want these people to remember me and remember my state.

A reporter for China Central Television asks me on camera why young American political leaders are so interested in the Beijing Olympics. She and a network cameraman follow us throughout our trip. The network finds it interesting that we’re visiting China as Chinese Premier Wen Jabao visits the United States.

Some of our delegation has been on Chinese network TV, and now it’s my turn. She’s asking me the question because I prefaced a pointed question to a Chinese trade official with a joking request for two tickets to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. All of the Chinese laughed, but the reporter seems not to have gotten the joke.

I explain that it was a light-hearted comment and that the Olympics are a significant achievement for China, then I quickly move on to the main message: that we welcome the opportunity for dialogue between our two countries and that we look forward to future exchanges. The cameras are always rolling, even in Communist China.

It becomes apparent that the All-China Youth Federation, our host for the trip, is a powerful group within the Chinese system. Our hosts are gracious, professional (and connected), and we’re treated well.

Despite being an arm of the Communist Party, the Federation, like all of China, has plunged headfirst into capitalism. A leading Federation official confesses that he’s “envious of younger entrepreneurs who will accumulate great wealth for themselves and others.”

We’re told that the Federation owns a newspaper and a chain of drug stores, and we meet so many well-heeled “members of the Federation” that it becomes the punch line to a running joke in our group. Who owns the majority interest in our hotel? A member of the Federation. The businessman we met whose companies’ billboards we see en route to the airport? A member of the Federation. The emperor who built thousands of terra cotta soldiers centuries ago, now known as the Eighth Wonder of the World? Probably, we might guess, a member of the Federation.

Recruiting is key to success in America, I tell the Communist Party official. Our political parties recruit voters and volunteers, and we believe in what we say and what our parties stand for. Given the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has abandoned traditional Marxist-Leninist theory, I ask him, how does the Party persuade people to join?

His answer should not have surprised me. Earlier in the week, a leading Chinese economist told me that no one studies the Marxist dialectic anymore. In the Great Hall of the People, another leading government official made the first of many references to a “socialist market economy” in response to my question about the contradiction between theory and reality in China.

So, given all that I’d seen and heard, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the party official’s answer to my question. “If you want to contribute,” he said, “you need to join the Party.”

“Workers of the world unite” is out the window. Communism as an ideology is dead, thankfully, but “If you want to get ahead in China, it helps to join the Party.”

The fifth-graders at the public elementary school we visit in Shanghai use conversational English. “It is nice to meet you,” they say. “What is your name?” “Thank you for visiting.”

Later, I help the 8-year-old son of my Shanghai host family with his English homework. We’re matching pictures with words in his English language textbook. He doesn’t know much English yet, but then again, he’s only 8. When we drop him off at school the next morning, I note that the school has a digital display bulletin board.

I visit the laser engineering and opto-electronics institute and manufacturing facility where the boy’s father works. As best I can determine, they conduct research and development in high power laser physics and quantum optics, and they manufacture crystals for commercial use in aerospace and medicine.

I don’t even need to make a note to remind myself to promote education back home.

Editor’s note: Missouri 23rd District State Rep. and House

Minority Whip Jeff Harris was one of eight delegates with the American Council of Young Political Leaders to visit China last month and talk with Chinese leaders about trade and political issues. He submitted his story and photos to the Missourian.

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