When Boise City Councilwoman Lauren McLean got the call from Washington, D.C., she was given 24 hours to decide: Would she be one of six delegates from the United States on a two-week mission to China in May?
"I was nominated to ACYPL in 2014. If you're selected you have an opportunity to represent them on one trip, but they choose the destination," McLean told Boise Weekly. "I was pretty surprised."
Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the American Council of Young Political Leaders, was founded in 1966 in an effort to thaw tensions in the Cold War era by dispatching Americans from the public and private sectors to select corners of the world. For 37 of those years, China has been one of those destinations.
"Our delegation was made up of three Democrats and three Republicans; that's on purpose," said McLean, a Democrat and member of the Boise Council since 2011. The delegation also included a member of the Birmingham, Ala., City Council and an executive with the Target Corporation (both Democrats); and three Republicans: a commissioner from Johnson County, Wyo.; a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives; and the chief of staff of the Boeing Company.
"And before we left, I made a point of being briefed by Micron and Hewlett-Packard so that I had an understanding of their business with China," said McLean.
On May 21, McLean was visiting the U.S. State Department and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a final briefing before the delegation boarded for a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing. The following two weeks included visiting some wonders of the world including the Great Wall of China and Forbidden City, but much of the schedule was filled with face time with ministers and officials from the Export-Import Bank of China, the National People's Congress, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and students from the universities of Qinghai (in Xining) and Fudan (in Shanghai).
"In a session with the top director from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, I was asked to lead the meeting that day. I was surprised at how open they were about their environmental challenges," said McLean "In fact, later in our trip when we had the opportunity to spend some time with university students, I was impressed by how much environmental issues meant to them. Honestly, I was hearing nothing different from what I hear from students here in the U.S."
McLean said Chinese students knew a lot more about the U.S. than their American counterparts knew about China.
"It probably has to do with the fact that there are about 200,000 Chinese students currently in the U.S.," she said.
McLean, an avid runner who has competed in the Boston Marathon and regularly jogs across Boise in the pre-dawn hours, had an extra advantage over the rest of her delegation to China— each morning, she would jog the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, snapping plenty of photos.
"The automobile traffic can be terrible," Mclean said. "In Beijing, the license plates are numbered so that citizens can only drive on certain days. Also, you have to win a lottery for the right to buy a car in Beijing. And in Shanghai, they have an auction to buy license plates. The growth was something I really couldn't begin to imagine. The rising middle class is astounding."
Which leads McLean to think more about how the U.S. will need to be prepared to compete with such a superpower.
"As their economy grows, I think China's next generation of leaders will push their nation to be even more open than it is now," she said. "And that informs how we'll need to be ready for that."