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East meets Midwest as 37 Chinese students arrive for student program

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2013: Missouri’s Boys State and Girls State will mark a national first over the next few weeks, as they host an expected 37 high school and college students from China – 16 boys and 21 girls – who will join the hundreds of Missouri teens who participate in the student-government program.

Former Gov. Bob Holden, who initiated the idea, will greet the first wave of Chinese students – the boys – when they arrive at Lambert Field Thursday. The female students will arrive a week later.

“This has never been tried anywhere in the United States,” Holden said in an interview, as he emphasized how students will engage in “total immersion in two cultures.’’ He hopes that will spawn greater understanding among the students throughout their lives.

“It allows us to deconstruct the caricatures… the political systems paint of each other and let them to know each other as people,’’ Holden said.

He noted that most of the Missouri students in the program are from rural areas and may have never met someone from China – much less someone close to their own age.

Improving mutual understanding, he continued, is “really at the heart’’ of the recent summit in California of President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “You do that through education and cultural exchanges,” Holden said.

In February, Xi Jinping stopped in Muscatine, Iowa to see the family who had hosted him for several nights almost 30 years ago when he had visited the United States as a young man.

Some of the Chinese students attending Missouri’s Boys State and Girls State could end up, decades from now, as major Chinese leaders, Holden said, adding that their experience in Missouri could have a lifelong impact.

Holden emphasized that the student exchange “is really a collaborative effort.’’ He singled out Mike Plunkett, director of Missouri Boys State, and a number of Missouri businesses and corporations that chipped in money to help cover  travel costs.

Webster University and the University of Missouri-Columbia also are involved. Holden also praised the work of the U.S. State Department, which “went out of their way’’ to be helpful.

The Chinese students are “from all different parts of China’’ and are high school or college age, Holden said. 

After they arrive at Lambert, they’ll travel to Columbia, where they will get to stop by Shakespeare’s Pizza, a popular college hangout. The entourage also will visit Kansas City before settling into their quarters in Warrensburg, where Boys State and Girls State are held annually.

The Chinese students will spend a whole week in the Boys State and  Girls State programs. The participants set up local "governments'' and hold elections. 

"We want them to have a rich experience, not a 'pass-through,' " Holden said.

One of the speakers at Boys State will be Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward whose work in the 1970s contributed to President Richard Nixon's resignation from office in 1974.

Holden has become deeply involved in fostering U.S.-China relations since leaving office in 2005. He is chairman of the Midwest-U.S. China Association, a nonprofit group that encourages economic ties between China and 12 Midwestern states, including Missouri and Illinois.

Holden estimates that he's traveled to China at least 10 times. He recalled traveling to a college campus there, where he was to address students, and finding 400 waiting for him "on a Friday night," Holden added with a chuckle.

Holden hopes that Chinese students will participate every year in Missouri's Boys State and Girls State programs.

"Our intent is to expand this beyond Missouri,'' he said. "You do this 10,15, 20 years... (and) you build up some pretty good relationships that you might not have had before."

"We might find that we have more in common with each other, than not."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.