SALINA, Kan. - First impressions are lasting. And mine was very positive. In November I had the good fortune to be part of a group from Salina that traveled to China for ten days. After a fourteen-hour flight from Los Angeles we arrived at the Beijing International Airport and stepped into another world. Inside the spacious terminal everything was sparkling. The pristine scene contributed to our sense of excitement as we contemplated the adventure that lay ahead of us.
By now I've had time to reflect on the many experiences of our trip. And as I try to sum up my sense of this rising power I keep coming back to the feeling I had when I first arrived.
The Beijing Airport was rebuilt for the 2008 Olympics. The Chinese wanted to impress the people from all over the world who traveled to their country for the Games. They wanted to show everyone that the 21st Century China is not your father's, or even your older brother or sister's China. The airport makes a bold statement. They're a proud country with five thousand years of history that is stepping confidently into the future.
And they've thrown open the doors to the outside world.
Therein was the main lesson I took away from my initial visit to the previously forbidden kingdom. The Chinese leadership decided somewhere along the line that a hermetically sealed China, a la their North Korean neighbors, would not produce the economic growth necessary to feed their large population, let alone take their place as a leader on the world stage. Trade with the outside world was needed to accelerate their trajectory.
Some on our trip compared the Beijing Airport to its counterpart in Moscow. I haven't had the opportunity to visit Russia to date, but according to others the airport in that nation's capital is a cold, gloomy and forbidding place, as unwelcoming as one could imagine. If one can judge a country somewhat by the airport in their capital city Russia is still deeply suspicious of the outside world, caught up in a stagnant economy with backwards-looking leadership. China, on the other hand, has opened up to the outside world, while knowing that such an opening will bring inevitable changes.
Yes, our tour was fairly tightly scripted, but the organizers did pack a lot into eight days. We visited the capital and four other large cities in the area of China's eastern coast. We saw enough of the country to palpably feel the economic boom that is transforming modern China, a country quickly embracing capitalism. And there still is lots of room to grow. Although the Chinese economy is now the world's second largest, according to our guide the country ranks only 106th in terms of per capita income.
Trade fuels a lot of this growth. And the Chinese desire to access foreign goods and know-how leads me to conclude that an eventual opening of their political system is inevitable. Along with products and technology come ideas. People travel back and forth and learn each other's language and customs. Students go abroad to study. The daughter of China's Vice-President, for example, studies at Harvard. More and more Americans are studying in China. Mutual understanding develops, which is the major building block for a peaceful world.
When one of our guides said his goodbyes he stressed the optimism that average Chinese feel towards their future. And as we passed through the same airport on the return home I could understand his and their feelings.
I also returned recognizing that this attitude of openness towards other cultures has been a large part of America's success. And we need to maintain that outlook. America can learn some things from China. And we can bring back their best ideas and reinvigorate the native optimism that has always been an integral part of our national psyche.