The organizer of a trip by 15 state legislators to China this summer says he returned with a “verbal commitment” from Chinese officials to match up to $5 million in state money for establishing educational ties between the nation and Tennessee.
The lawmakers, including Reps. Ryan Haynes and Harry Tindell of Knoxville, spent 10 days touring the Asian nation last month.
In interviews, several said they were impressed by the extraordinary amount of construction under way and by the extraordinary amount of pollution. They offered mixed reviews on other matters, including the quality of the food they were served.
The legislators were responsible for paying their own airfare and related expenses, which two said was about $2,500. Once in China, their food, travel and lodging costs were covered by Hanban, a branch of the Chinese government, said Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, who organized the trip. Some said they used campaign funds to cover their portion of the cost.
Hanban, more properly known as the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, is affiliated with the Confucius Institute, a nonprofit public institution that promotes Chinese language and culture. According to its website, the institute is engaged in teaching the Chinese language at more than 300 locations around the world.
Tennessee legislators were invited to China by Madam Xu Lin, executive director of the international Confucius Institute, through its University of Memphis operation, said Coley, a veteran of three prior trips to the People’s Republic of China.
His four trips collectively have covered about 90 days, Coley said, and he saw clear sky on only four of those days because of the smog and construction dust filling the atmosphere.
“It was filthy,” said Republican Haynes, who said he came away with a new appreciation for the relative cleanliness of the environment in Tennessee and the rest of the United States.
Haynes also said he found it difficult to eat much of the food served, though others such as Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, and Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, said they enjoyed the various dishes, often involving fish and vegetables.
“I was really glad to get back,” he said. “I don’t know that I want to do that again. I ate such a small amount of rice that I can’t imagine it was a huge expense to anyone (covering the cost).”
“I learned a lot and I didn’t spend any state dollars to do it,” said Tindell.
Legislators interviewed uniformly said that they were amazed at the amount of building and development ongoing in the nation of 1.3 billion people.
Coley said the nation now has a “middle class” of 300 million, roughly the same as the entire population of the United States. At the time of his first visit in 2004, he said, the country’s gross national product was about the same as that of Italy. It has now passed Italy, Germany, France, Britain and Japan and is “right behind us,” he said.
That “enormous growth” provides the United States with global competition and a new market, Coley said, and Tennessee is already one of the top states in dealings with China with about $1.3 billion in annual trade. The group of legislators, accompanied in some legislative staff and some legislator spouses, paid a visit to Tennessee’s trade office while in Beijing.
Tennessee’s prospects of taking advantage of the Chinese market would be enhanced by more ties and by more Tennesseans learning to speak Chinese, Coley said. While many Chinese speak English, relatively few Americans speak Chinese.
Toward that goal, Coley said he would like state government to become more involved in expanding ties with the nation. In talks with Chinese officials, Coley said he was told that they could provide up to $5 million to match on a 50-50 basis any spending by the state of Tennessee to promote the teaching of Chinese and related, business-oriented programs.
That “verbal commitment” from the Chinese has not been matched by any commitment at the state level and Coley acknowledged that gaining approval for using state funds for such a new program may be difficult in a time of tight state budgets. But Coley said he plans to talk over the idea with Gov. Bill Haslam, legislative leaders and other state officials.
Haynes, Tindell and some other legislators interviewed said they could be supportive of such a move after seeing first hand the growth under way in China, subject to setting priorities with other funding.
Besides Beijing, other cities visited by the legislators included Nanjin, Wuhan and Nanjing, legislators said. They took a ride on the “bullet train” that reaches speeds of up to 220 mph and, of course, visited the Great Wall of China.
Other legislators making the trip included Reps. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier; Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville; Larry Miller, D-Memphis; Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton; David Shepard, D-Dickson; John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville; Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis; Mark White, R-Memphis; John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, and Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan.
Travel by Tennessee state officials is not a new phenomena. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen led a delegation of state officials and some business leaders on a “trade mission” to China in 2008 and a group of state legislators, including then-House Speaker Kent Williams, traveled to Taiwan last year.