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A first-hand account of China's surprising realities

"Does this place remind you of 'The Truman Show'?" I quipped to a small group of legislative colleagues while walking from a bullet train Sunday night, Sept. 18. They nodded in agreement, eyes wide from a whirlwind of 18 days observing seven Chinese cities on the 2011 Oregon Legislative trade delegation.

The purpose of our delegation was to advance business relationships with our largest international trading partner, promote our university system to Chinese students and demonstrate our commitment to friendly trade relations to a government that places extraordinary value on such gestures.

What we received in return was an invaluable glimpse into the surprising realities of China.

While the world's economy has crumbled, China's GDP has skyrocketed. As we drove through cities from Hong Kong to Beijing, no one could escape the innumerable construction cranes dotting the skyline.

Even more inescapable was the stillness of those cranes.

The world's most robust economy revealed itself one empty building at a time. Endless high-rises -- some complete, some wrapped in quiet bamboo scaffolding -- sit vacant and ignored.

It quickly became apparent that the explosive growth of the Chinese economy is based largely on domestic real estate speculation without actual demand, financed by municipal government programs.

We visited an impressively designed city on Sept. 18. Tianjin is a beautiful port city with a gorgeous waterfront, international districts and a planned space for tourism. At the center is an 80-some story financial building with mirrored glass and animated exterior lighting - and not a single tenant.

Chinese newspapers are starting to recognize the problem, and are beginning to blame speculators. It may be too little too late, compounded by other challenges.

The resources to support China's growth are as strained as their municipal governments' credit cards. There is not enough water to support the future needs of citizens. Add to that the abject poverty which sits alongside most multi-million-dollar developments, and the luster of the world's most enviable economy starts to lose its shine.

Despite these observations, I see significant opportunity for Oregon and Chinese cooperation. Along with their residential and commercial speculation, they are investing in deep water ports to facilitate the trade of badly needed natural resources.

Oregon's booming clean energy industries will also flourish in a country so heavily populated with extraordinary demands for consumption.

The strongest opportunities I saw came from our visits to public schools promoting study-abroad programs in Oregon.

The discipline in Chinese K-12 is astounding. We visited a school in Yichang where students toil shoulder-to-shoulder in classrooms from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. They study equations and perform monotonous group exercise on their sports field. They live for the reward of hearing 10 minutes of Lady Gaga on their iPods.

It occurred to me that this is not a workforce to be feared. It's one to attract.

By offering these students a higher education experience that values their happiness while leveraging their discipline and education, we can make our society more competitive in the fields in which we are floundering.

By allowing more work visas for Chinese graduates educated in Oregon, then offering them a path to citizenship, we give our engineering, medical and research industries a competitive advantage.

My conclusion is driven by the premise that people will gravitate toward happiness and livability. As real estate speculation and poor lending practices threaten the Chinese economy, we should prepare to embrace their best and brightest with educational opportunity and a path to join in the melting pot.

(Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, represents House District 51, which includes Beavercreek, Boring, Clackamas, Damascus, Eagle Creek, Estacada, Happy Valley and rural Oregon City.)