Hey citizen, what’s your China connection?

Guest Column by Buck Ryan

“Dad, is everything made in China?”

My second-grader fired that shot around the world shortly after her enthusiasm for reading spread from books to labels on her clothes — from T-shirts to dresses — and to tags on her toys — from Webkinz to American Girl Dolls.

The 7-year-old’s inflection combined childlike wonderment with teenage exasperation, and it was enough for me to launch a two-year exploration of Kentucky’s connection to China. A growing web, strengthened by news media coverage, is pulling the Commonwealth closer to China along the strands of commerce, education and the arts, religion, adoptions, sports and health care.

Lately, two Lexington Herald-Leader items struck a chord across the web: a letter to the editor entitled, “Chinese Russian Roulette” and a local story entitled, “Groups seek donations for Chinese.” The first was a plaintive cry: How dare America trade with China despite massive recalls of dangerous products, such as toys, toothpaste, tires, pharmaceuticals, pet food and baby cribs?

Here are some more details to ponder: China’s trade with America in 2007 compared with ‘06 increased nearly 50 percent. Imports exceeded exports by $262 billion, and the trade deficit has been growing since 1985, the last time we were close to even. I thought Taiwan was our ally.

As news spread that up to 80 percent of the toys in America were made in China, the Consumer Product Safety Commission revealed that it employed one full-time toy tester. Remember when the threat of lead poisoning for kids was paint chips on tenement windowsills, not Thomas the Tank Engines painted in a Chinese factory?

The second item about a fund-raiser and concert to benefit earthquake victims in China cited leadership by three local groups: the Lexington Chinese Christian Church, the Kentucky Chinese American Association and the University of Kentucky’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

That list cast light on the otherwise invisible web of connections between Kentucky and China, starting with religion. At a Citizen Kentucky forum we held last year, a Berea College religion professor said boldly, “I guarantee you: There are more people in church on Sunday in China than in all of Europe.”

Wait, isn’t China a Godless Communist country? China’s 1982 Constitution, which lists its “First Amendment” as Article 35, provided for five official religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. “Official,” of course, means government-controlled; nonetheless, China may not be the nation you have in mind.

Here are a few tips for viewing news coverage of China as we get closer to the Aug. 8 opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing:

Which China?

When you hear the word “China,” ask yourself, Which China: the rich one or the poor one, the coastal or the inland, the urban or the rural? China is second only to America for billionaires at the same time 300 million people — roughly the U.S. population — make $1 a day, according to World Bank estimates.

Speed of change

When you hear a fact or figure about China, ask yourself, is it still true? More than 30 years ago, four men (Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Zhou Enlai) decided U.S.-China relations; today several centers of power, including people-to-people on the Internet, are changing the relations daily.

Just like us?

Our Citizen Kentucky forum produced many stories of how average Chinese people, not university doctoral students, are just like Americans, only they save a lot more money. Then a close-up interview with the Kettering Foundation’s general counsel revealed that she may have been the first African-American some Chinese people had ever seen. “I could have stopped busloads of people,” she said.

When I was kid, I might have asked my Dad, “Is everything made in Japan?” My, how times have changed.