October 11, 2006

Postcards from China

Greenport Mayor David Kapell is back home after his recent trip to China, and the souvenirs he's brought home for residents are wrapped in the shape of new ideas for the future of the village.

In August, Kapell announced that he had received an invitation to participate in an international symposium on development of small and medium-sized cities in China.

The symposium was held in Tai'an City in the Shandong Province of the Peoples Republic of China, sponsored by the Provincial People's Government of Shandong & The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Peoples Republic of China on September 22 thru 25.

Kapell was a member of a Suffolk County delegation invited through the county's membership in the International Economic Development Council. The conference was attended by over 200 people, including mayors and other chief elected officials, business people, specialists and scholars.

There were some disgruntled taxpayers who questioned whether they should foot the bill for the mayor's travel expenses. Although conference hosts paid for lodging, meals and transportation, attendees were responsible for roundtrip airfare to Tai'an City. The board supported the initiative and voted to authorize Kapell to attend the conference and allocated funds for expenses, not to exceed $3000.

In fact, Kapell brought back $1300 of the $3000 to village taxpayers. "I only spent $1700 of my allowance," he said. "I only spent what I had to."

And the experience he brought home, he said, has been invaluable. "A trip like that is a real eye opener for anyone like me [who] hasn't been to Asia before."

Kapell was impressed with China, which he described as a "deeply rooted entrepreneurial society," something he believes contributes to the country's recent economic success. "Now that they've opened up a little bit to capitalism, it's unleashed this powerful cultural resource in the form of entrepreneurship. Everyone's doing something to make a buck," he said.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, is "a house on fire, economically," a situation that promises huge implications for the future, said Kapell.

"These global changes can have a profound impact locally, depending upon how changes are responded to at the local level."

The mayor attended a ceremony held on the summit of Mt. Tai, one of the most revered cultural and religious sites in China, after which the city of Tai'an gets its name. The group also visited the birthplace and home of Confucius.

The mayor was touched by the human side of the tour; delegates were assigned students majoring in English at the college in Tai'an who acted as translators and guides.

Kapell's guide, Lila, is the daughter of peasant farmers and makes only 25 cents an hour working at a photography studio. Because she was first in her class, she attends college, and is optimistic about both her own future and China's.

The mayor returned home enlightened. "Here I am, a reasonable, progressive-thinking person, who'd had absolutely no exposure to this culture whatsoever until the village board was kind enough to send me to China," he said, adding that most Americans have had little exposure to China.

The mayor said it's crucial for the future of the village and the nation to become more familiar with Chinese culture and language. Otherwise, "we're turning our back on enormous economic opportunity."

The mayor has tentatively planned a slide show presentation of his trip to China for October 19 at 7 p.m. in village hall.

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