Official returns from China
May 23, 2008
Almost 19 years ago, Chinese tanks rumbled through Tiananmen Square in one of the era’s most stunning crackdowns on demonstrators.
As Park City Councilman Roger Harlan recently strolled through the Beijing square, a grand public space, as he describes it, he saw nothing of its history as a battleground for the Chinese democratic movement.
Soldiers patrolled Tiananmen Square, and Harlan suspects there were security officers dressed in regular clothes mixed into the crowd. The square would not be an ideal place to gather, as the students did in 1989, he says.
"If you wanted to have a political presence . . . I think it would have a life cycle of 45 seconds," Harlan says.
The visit to Tiananmen Square was one of the highlights of Harlan’s two-week trip to China during the first half of May to assist Chinese college students learn the finer points of conversing in English, part of a program organized by a Maryland nonprofit.
He traveled to China as the nation, the world’s most populous, continues to emerge as a powerful player in world politics but also struggles with its image as a country with a suspect human-rights history and an environmental record that some condemn. The upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing have further emboldened the critics.
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Harlan says the people there realize some outsiders have poor opinions of the country, but his group did not press the Chinese.
"We were very careful to measure the kinds of questions we asked," he says.
Park City has loose ties to China, with a well-established exchange program between Park City High School and a Beijing high school spurring interest and Park City’s stature as a top-shelf winter-sports community drawing visitors from China.
Harlan, who has long worked with youths in the U.S., says the Chinese college students he met want to understand English. They start learning English when they are young, realizing the language’s importance in world affairs and international business, he says.
"They know English is a strategic language for their country . . . So much of what’s happening in China, businesswise, is conducted in the language of English," Harlan says.
He describes the students as being motivated to learn and says some of them have English skills that are "absolutely outstanding." Harlan says Chinese students are more willing to learn another language than American students are.
He spent most of the visit in a coastal city called Qinhuangdao and in Beijing, where he spent three days. He visited Xi’an as well, famous for its terra cotta warriors.
Beijing, Harlan says, buzzes like other world capitals, and it is a "growing, complex, large, impressive city."
"Beijing is the Washington, D.C., of China and Shanghai is the New York City," he says.
Harlan, who was a City Councilor as City Hall prepared for the 2002 Winter Olympics, says he did not notice widespread buzz in China about the upcoming Summer Olympics, scheduled Aug. 8-24 in Beijing.
Regular Chinese people, he says, cannot afford tickets to the Olympic events.
"No one plans to go because of the money. I think it’s going to be expensive," Harlan says.
Harlan visited the Chinese Olympic stadium, the nearby Olympic aquatic center and a smaller arena where athletes will compete.
The Park City area hosted about half of the sporting events during the Winter Olympics, and the city was busy with Games revelers. Harlan and the other elected officials of the era aggressively prepared for the Games, turning Main Street into an auto-free celebration zone and sending delegations to other Olympics.
Harlan says it seems the Olympics will be an inconvenience for people who live in Beijing, but not more so than other cities that have hosted the Games.
The Olympic torch relay that will end in Beijing has received worldwide publicity as demonstrators marred the route.
"Our 12 people didn’t experience any excitement from the people in the hotel who could speak English," Harlan says. "We didn’t detect any unusual excitement for the Olympic Games in Beijing."
Chinese acknowledged devastation
Park City Councilman Roger Harlan was in the Chinese capital Beijing when the recent devastating earthquake struck China.
He did not feel the quake, but others in Beijing did, he says. Harlan says the English-language media in China reported the earthquake occurred, and he watched two television stations in his hotel room covering the disaster.
He says it seemed the Chinese media accurately portrayed the earthquake.
"It appeared to a Westerner’s eyes China admitted there was a disaster with monumental effect," Harlan says.
He was not asked to help with the relief efforts. He says he did not notice a change in Beijing’s psyche after the earthquake struck.
"I could not detect a change. That’s not saying there wasn’t," Harlan says.