By Cynthia Seelhammer, County Manager, Coconino County
I was one of three ICMA managers chosen to teach about local government at a university in Beijing this summer and also serve as
an adviser to local governments.
Although we taught different subjects, we all found that the two-and-a-half weeks flew by and we had only small amounts of time
to be tourists. We taught our four-hour classes nine days in a row, working feverishly before and after class to create new
PowerPoints, find videos, and create small group exercises. On the weekends, and when the teaching ended, ICMA China took us to
meet with local government advisers in Beijing and at the City of Zibo, a few hours south of the capital.
Cities are growing very fast throughout China as more people leave the poorer, rural countryside and this creates a big challenge
for infrastructure. Streets and highways are crowded. Water from faucets is not drinkable - as a matter of fact, my students
asked me about the U.S. Show "Homeland" and wondered why one of the characters kept her medications in the bathroom - since there
is no water to drink in the bathroom. When they learned that in the U.S. the water from the tap is drinkable, they were
astonished. Their next question was: You mean you wash your cars with water you can drink?
My topic was about "Media, City Management and Volunteer Activities in the US." It became clear very early in the first class
that the topics of media and volunteers interested the students more than anything else. They all understood English but their
ability to speak English varied greatly.
By the second week, we were having many interesting conversations in class. Many of the cultural, historical, and government
issues that were raised were interesting or astonishing. After learning about the many levels of U.S. government and the
multitude of special districts, the students pointed out that the duplication of administration is not efficient, and the constant
citizen involvement seems to cause serious discord. I agreed that they are correct - democracy is not efficient and it is messy.
But we place a higher value on freedom of speech and self-determination than we do on social harmony. The students made
presentations on controversial and painful issues facing their country, including topics like left behind children (children left
in the countryside with relatives when their parents move to the city to work); one-child policy (which many believe will be
changed to two children before long); and environment versus economy (where the environment always seems to lose).
My students were gracious and kind, insisting on taking me for meals, and on ensuring that I did get to see a few tourist sights.
The university is located about 90 minutes from the center of Beijing and 60 minutes from the Great Wall. My students made sure I
saw the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, among other things.
China is an astonishing combination of modern, ancient and under-developed. The university has modern buildings, classrooms and
technology. Streets are filled with electric scooters, motor bikes, and newer model cars. Travel by high-speed bullet train is
astonishingly fast. Cities are using technology and CCTV to monitor and record streets to reduce crime.
Issues of serious air pollution exist, however, despite Beijing's efforts to reduce it. They've planted millions of trees in
the past decades and limit vehicles traveling into the central city. There is discussion about moving the federal government to
a new part of the city, away from the super-busy central city. You can usually see the air, however, a constant gray haze that
sometimes leaves the taste of sulfur in your mouth. When traveling by train, you can see that new cities and industry is
everywhere, always within sight, across from or nearby farm fields. It is astonishing what substantial amounts of new
development have occurred in the decades when China dealt with the largest migration of people into cities in the history of the
world. It is also worrying to see what the cost has been in air quality and loss of natural areas.
I would encourage any ICMA member interested in this experience to consider applying to teach next summer. It was educational on
so many levels.