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Jaren Wilkey, BYU
BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson meets with Chinese officials at a pre-performance reception in the Poly Theatre during his recent visit to Beijing.

With a well-received history of performances and educational programs in the People's Republic of China spawning a plea to do more, Brigham Young University is content to stay its present course.

"There's quite an appetite for more educational and cultural exchanges," said BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson. "That's a big nation, and while we're a significant university, we're still a relative small university — what we try to do, we try to do well."

That includes China tours by BYU performing-arts groups, some two-dozen since the Young Ambassadors' first foray in 1979. Others include BYU Ballroom Dance, Living Legends, Chamber Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Synthesis and Folk Dance Ensemble, the latter scheduled to visit Hong Kong and China again next spring.

It includes the China Teachers Program, a nonprofit outreach program of BYU's David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. Since its start in 1989, it has sent nearly 1,000 teachers to 40 Chinese universities, having interacted with an estimated 175,000 students there.

And it includes other ongoing China-oriented activities — Semester Abroad programs and smaller-scale student trips sponsored by university departments.

A 30,000-student private university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU is not alone in its efforts. Sister institutions BYU-Hawaii and even BYU-Idaho to some degree have China-directed programs, Samuelson said.

BYU-Hawaii is a natural, given its extensive programs centered on Pacific cultures and its proximity to Pacific Rim nations.

BYU is not aggressive in its own development in mainland China, without a satellite campus similar to other major U.S. universities and without an endless stream of educational agreements, which Samuelson calls "more formalities than function" in the long run.

And with polite regret, BYU turns down many inquiries and proposals from universities and other educational entities to expand its involvement with programs and exchanges in China. "We can't respond to all the requests we receive," Samuelson said.

That's not to say that BYU is in a lock-down mode, limiting all interactions. In fact, BYU allows faculty members to arrange their own approved exchanges and sabbaticals to work in mainland China.

When Samuelson last year made his first return visit to China since becoming BYU president, he kept running into BYU faculty members working there in their respective fields in small-scale arrangements — someone from engineering at one Chinese university, someone else from health and human performance at another and more elsewhere.

Last summer, Samuelson accompanied the BYU Young Ambassadors performing group for its tour. Earlier this summer, Samuelson was back in Beijing to catch the tail end of the BYU Ballroom group's June tour and performance as part of the 2008 Beijing Cultural Olympics.

His itinerary this time around was more formal and official than the previous year's, coupling the three Beijing performances with a series of luncheons, dinners and receptions with Chinese dignitaries and officials from the PRC government's ministries of education and culture.

It was an opportunity to not only represent BYU and to sustain existing relationships, "but also to continue to make friends," Samuelson said.

Officials from all sides — the Chinese government, the Chinese universities, BYU and the LDS Church — all are aware of the sensitive nature of their relationships, fostered on mutual trust.

The result is not awkward interactions nor tense relations, but rather respect for acknowledged differences and appreciation for welcome similarities.

"They know we represent (the church's) university and its teachings," said Samuelson, "but they also know we will not be passing out Books of Mormon and other literature."

Conversely, the Chinese know of the principles and practices of BYU representatives and church members as a whole, said Samuelson, adding that the hosts strive to be hospitable to university visitors who abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco when their use is so common among the Chinese.

"It's not lost on them," he said, "and I don't see any hostility on their part."

As well as sending representatives to China, BYU has a strong track record with visiting Chinese students attending its Provo campus.

Samuelson lists BYU's attractions to Chinese students and officials — an institution promoting high standards and a safe environment — not only in personal safety but also safety for their culture and traditions.

Language differences are lessened, given the number of BYU students who learned — and continue to develop — a second language as former LDS Church missionaries.

"We're also an atypical university," he said, "because of the number of Mandarin speakers."


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