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COLUMN ONE

City hall: It's a class struggle

A councilman from Walnut is teaching Chinese bureaucrats the American way of running a city. And red tape is getting snipped.

January 11, 2008|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

When Joaquin Lim landed in the northern Chinese city of Dalian a few months ago, a smiling airport official immediately ushered him off the plane and through immigration and customs before the rest of the passengers could even empty the cabin.

When Lim arrived in the airport's terminal, he noticed a huge banner that read: "Welcome to Dalian Respected Teacher." Over the next few days, he was honored at various banquets and given personal tours of Dalian's government buildings and sprawling harbor.

It was quite a welcome for a councilman from Walnut, the small upscale suburb about 25 miles east of Los Angeles.

Lim wasn't there to sign any trade deals or negotiate treaties. But, the 57-year-old college professor nevertheless has had a profound impact on this thriving port city of 6 million people.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Joaquin Lim: An article in Section A on Jan. 11 about Chinese officials learning about American government described Walnut Councilman Joaquin Lim as an economics professor and said that he taught at Cal State Los Angeles. Lim taught business management at the university.

Using Walnut as a model, Lim teaches how local government should work in his course at Cal Poly Pomona, and Dalian's Communist Party apparatchiks have been coming for seven years to take notes.

For the Dalian students, it has been a culture clash. They come from a progressive city known for its cleanliness, healthy economy and office parks. But unlike Walnut, the government exerts total control with Internet censorship, no free press and few opportunities for the public to voice opinions or concerns.

During their 10-month course, the students dive into the mundane world of local government -- land-use battles, NIMBYism and customer service as well as council meetings that drag on for hours as residents line up to speak.

Lim has no illusions that his Pomona seminars will bring democracy to Dalian. But he hopes they will in some small way change the mind-set of the bureaucratic, rigid government, making it more flexible to the needs of the public.

"There has to be a paradigm shift in government from the old China when leaders were seen as emperors," said Lim, whose family fled a turbulent China under Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s when he was a young boy. "I'd like them to understand they're not gods, but civil servants."

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Lim began a class last year with a hypothetical question: "What if IBM comes to Dalian and says they want to build a factory with tax benefits and that they want to take you out to dinner?"

After a dead silence amid the classroom full of Chinese bureaucrats, Charles Chen, a Dalian district field officer, cracked, "Yes, I like," triggering a swell of laughter.

"No," Lim responded. "You want to avoid a potential conflict of interest."

"But how would anyone know?" asked Jason Liu, an aide to Dalian's mayor.

"Someone always knows," answered John Wang, a marketing manager at Dalian International Airport.

Other Chinese bureaucrats in the room nodded in agreement.

For Lim, the idea was to have his students see an ethical conflict through the eyes of an American government official. Enjoying a dinner on IBM might seem fine in the closed government structure in Dalian, he said, but in the United States, government officials would have to worry about the ramifications if the media or the public found out about it.

After the lesson, Liu said he saw the wisdom of American disclosure laws, but he feared that no one was ready to enforce them in China yet.

"We lack experience in self-democracy," said Liu, 40, who keeps quotes from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his pocket. "In the past 5,000 years, we paid no attention to democracy. But in the last decade, we now know it's important."

Liu and 28 other ambitious civil servants had to beat out hundreds of other city employees to attend the program.

During the first few days of class, the stern-faced students sat up straight in class, uniformly dressed in business suits.

"In America, we don't have to do that," Lim told the group. "It's casual."

The students' eyes widened.

"If you want to leave the classroom, you don't need permission from me either," Lim said. "If you need a drink of water or you need to smoke a cigarette -- go."

They were also taken aback when Lim refused to be addressed as "professor," asking instead that they simply call him "Joaquin." When he sat on his desk with his feet up, some wondered if he was taking the course seriously.

When the oldest student, 42-year-old Charlie Cui, looked a little groggy one morning after staying up late to call family back home, Lim quipped: "What's the matter, Charlie? You have an all-nighter?"

Cui immediately blushed and said, "No." He had just learned the phrase and was mortified that Lim thought he had done something unsavory the night before. In China, it's unheard of for a teacher to crack jokes, especially at the expense of the oldest student.

Soon after, a friend of Cui approached Lim before class to say, "Mr. Lim, we want to let you know Charlie is the oldest person in class. If you would stop joking with him, we'd appreciate it."

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