Douglas County commissioners aren't planning any trips to see the Great Wall of China, but they are willing to weigh the pros and cons of establishing a sister county relationship with a province in China.
During their meeting Monday, commissioners will discuss the idea presented to them several weeks ago in a letter from Cal Downs, a retired Kansas University professor and business consultant to China. A panel of KU East Asian studies professors and local business and community leaders has been formed to study the idea.
"I encourage them to go ahead and do it if they are going to back it up with dollars," said Graham Kreicker, one of the panelists and a member of the Lawrence Sister Cities Advisory Board. "It won't do much good if you just have some papers signed but not have any real exchange."
Kreicker and others on the panel already have had one preliminary discussion with Harold Stewart, a KU public administration graduate student working as an intern in the county administrator's office. They will meet with commissioners Monday.
Commission Chairman Bob Johnson said he doubted he and fellow commissioners Charles Jones and Jere McElhaney would vote on the proposal soon. When commissioners received Downs' letter, they said they were not interested in simply replicating the Lawrence Sister City program. Lawrence has been a sister city to Eutin, Germany, since 1989 and Hiratsuka, Japan, since 1990.
"If there is some truly economic business relationship that is going to benefit the people of Douglas County and maybe in particular, agriculture, we'd probably want to see how that would work and explore it," Johnson said. "If it's just going to be a nice, feel-good thing, I don't think we are going to do it."
The panelists have prepared a list of pros and cons on the issue. One perceived positive of a China connection is that it could be economically beneficial to future generations of Douglas County residents because China is likely to be an increasingly important force in the global economy.
On the other hand, China is a communist nation that sometimes takes an aggressive stance against the United States. A sister county tie might stir some irritation among locals.
That's a judgment call commissioners will have to make, Kreicker said.
"Sometimes the best things to do are the things that are the most uncomfortable," he said. "Both the U.S. and China are here to stay, and if we can do something to build bridges, hopefully let some of their people see the benefits of the open society we have, that might be our best bet in the long run."
Kansas University already has some ties to China. Officials are considering an agreement with China to establish a Confucius Institute that would bring language classes and cultural programs to the Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Area officials could expect to receive a warm reception from officials across the Pacific Ocean, said Tom Kurata, who grew up in Lawrence, graduated from KU and now works as chief representative and country manager for OSIsoft in Shanghai, China.
During a recent visit to Lawrence, Kurata said sister city relationships - such as Lawrence's existing bond with Hiratsuka, Japan - were useful in establishing contacts that promote business relationships, generate personal friendships and, most importantly, foster mutual understanding between nations.
"I think these sister city-type relationships are a very good way, a very effective way, to get people from different cultures to come together and share and exchange ideas and experiences," said Kurata, who recently brokered a $450 million software deal for China's electric plants, transmission lines and transmission grids.