So how did Hu Jintao, president of the People's Republic of China, end up sitting on a bed in Austin Miller's dorm room?

It began with a Mormon mission to Taiwan.

"Before going on my mission I had no interest in China at all," Miller, a Yale University junior from St. George, said. "I was interested in Europe and European history and U.S. history and really didn't think about Asia much at all. After spending two years in Taiwan I just fell in love with China, Chinese people, everything."

After his mission, Miller returned to Yale for one semester. But China was on his mind.

Miller became fascinated by the history of China and especially how religion — Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism — affected Chinese society and politics. He decided to study history and international relations in the Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program in Beijing. He didn't know that Hu was planning on making a high-profile visit to the university on May 3.

Miller's mission language skills put him at the top of the list of students to meet with the president. "I was the only foreign-looking (student) that could, I guess, carry on a good conversation with President Hu," he said. "So that's why I think I was chosen, honestly."

Hu's impending visit was kept a secret from the students. "They made us start cleaning, like a week before. Everyone, the whole hall had to be spotless," Miller said. "And we were like, 'Who is this high-level guest that's coming that we all have to spend all our time cleaning?' "

It was only the day before the visit that Miller and his roommate, Chang Yin, were told that Hu was coming, and that he would meet with them for a short interview.

People were surprised when they learned Miller was going to have a chance to meet the president of China — especially being a foreigner.

"People were just shocked. That I would even have that opportunity to shake his hand and to sit down with him at all was something that no one had ever heard of," he said. "In a country of 1.4 billion people it's really a big honor and amazing to get to meet the person who is in charge of everything."

There have been many opportunities for Miller to share the gospel in small ways with his fellow students. Chinese people often asked a question that was not the same as what a Mormon might be asked in the West, such as "What does it feel like to have God as part your life?"

"That was a question I got quite a bit," Miller said.

Religious discussions were not discouraged, but rules, however, did prohibit Miller from inviting Chinese students to come to church. "But they were able to feel my love for the Lord and to see in my life the blessings I have received from living the commandments and being a member of this church," he said.

Miller credits his mission for preparing him to share his faith in a way that people could feel of its truthfulness.

The Chinese have very similar family values to Latter-day Saints, according to Miller. "They really need the gospel and I can see the Lord preparing the society for it," Miller said. "They've had so many disappointments in the last hundred years. They had the imperial order fall, and then it was replaced by the communists and they kind of destroyed all religion and just gave the people communism to look for and to give them hope. And that order failed. And there is a huge gap, a huge hole left in the Chinese people — especially the younger generation. They don't have ... something that is usually filled by religion.

Some opening has come because of the 2008 Olympics.

For example, when Miller first came to Beijing in February, many Web sites such as Wikipedia, BBC, The Weather Channel and others were not accessible. But as the Games approached, things began to become available. He also noticed a greater willingness in the government to talk about things that were going on — such as the earthquake in Sichuan that happened in May.

"I hope that trajectory stays," Miller said. He also hopes that the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai will continue the path toward openness begun by the Olympics. "I think they will keep opening, keep granting freedom little-by-little."

On the morning of Hu's visit, the sky turned dark. A hard rain began to fall. Miller was sitting on his bed when the president of China appeared in his doorway. "How do you do?" Hu said in English to Miller.

"I'm fine, thank you. How are you?" Miller responded in Chinese.

He shook hands with Hu while photographers took their picture. The president and about 30 reporters crowded into Miller and Chang's 10 feet by 20 feet room. Hu sat next to Miller on his bed.

"He didn't have a loud voice, but his presence was very commanding," Miller said.

Hu asked Miller questions: "How have things been for you in China?" "Has anything been inconvenient for you?" "How do you like the food?" "Where did you learn Chinese?"

Miller saw Hu's last question as an opportunity to tell how his language skills were learned on a mission for the LDS Church. Miller began to answer, "I learned the language in Taiwan as a ... " But the president quickly jumped in and asked how long he had been studying it.

"He really didn't want to talk about Taiwan too much," Miller said with a laugh.

Miller said that Hu didn't seem overbearing, that his manner was very kind with laughs and smiles.

Hu asked Miller and Chang how it was having a roommate from another country. They told him it was great to learn about the different cultures and lifestyles and how it was great just to become friends.

"He talked to us how it was important for the different cultures and societies to be together, to learn from each other and cooperate, to build bridges and to prepare for the close ties that the countries are bound have in the future," Miller said.

After a few more questions, Hu shook Miller's and Chang's hands and began to leave. "Keep working and take advantage of all these opportunities that you have," Hu said.

Hu then spoke to the rest of the students in the dorm's common room and shook Miller's hand one more time.

The visit was one of the first spots that evening on prime-time CCTV television news — the main network that is broadcast all across China. "People told us that millions would watch (the news report on CCTV)," Miller said.

Miller doesn't hesitate in crediting his mission for changing his life. "Without going on my mission I would never have had any of these opportunities at all. I would not be in China. I would not know Chinese. My whole course of my life would be somewhere else; who knows where? But it prepared me to trust in the Lord. Things are in his hands. If we do our part in preparing, he'll take care of us."


E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com