City Hall is a class struggle

LIGHT TOUCH: Walnut Councilman Joaquin Lim surprised Chinese students with his informal approach and used his reelection campaign as a lesson in American government. He says his students’ progress back home in China has exceeded his expectations.
LIGHT TOUCH: Walnut Councilman Joaquin Lim surprised Chinese students with his informal approach and used his reelection campaign as a lesson in American government. He says his students’ progress back home in China has exceeded his expectations.
(Karen Tapia-Andersen / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

When Joaquin Lim landed in the northern Chinese city of Dalian a few months ago, a smiling airport official immediately ushered him off the plane and through immigration and customs before the rest of the passengers could even empty the cabin.

When Lim arrived in the airport’s terminal, he noticed a huge banner that read: “Welcome to Dalian Respected Teacher.” Over the next few days, he was honored at various banquets and given personal tours of Dalian’s government buildings and sprawling harbor.

Joaquin Lim: An article in Section A on Jan. 11 about Chinese officials learning about American government described Walnut Councilman Joaquin Lim as an economics professor and said that he taught at Cal State Los Angeles. Lim taught business management at the university. —

It was quite a welcome for a councilman from Walnut, the small upscale suburb about 25 miles east of Los Angeles.

Lim wasn’t there to sign any trade deals or negotiate treaties. But, the 57-year-old college professor nevertheless has had a profound impact on this thriving port city of 6 million people.


Using Walnut as a model, Lim teaches how local government should work in his course at Cal Poly Pomona, and Dalian’s Communist Party apparatchiks have been coming for seven years to take notes.

For the Dalian students, it has been a culture clash. They come from a progressive city known for its cleanliness, healthy economy and office parks. But unlike Walnut, the government exerts total control with Internet censorship, no free press and few opportunities for the public to voice opinions or concerns.

During their 10-month course, the students dive into the mundane world of local government -- land-use battles, NIMBYism and customer service as well as council meetings that drag on for hours as residents line up to speak.

Lim has no illusions that his Pomona seminars will bring democracy to Dalian. But he hopes they will in some small way change the mind-set of the bureaucratic, rigid government, making it more flexible to the needs of the public.

“There has to be a paradigm shift in government from the old China when leaders were seen as emperors,” said Lim, whose family fled a turbulent China under Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s when he was a young boy. “I’d like them to understand they’re not gods, but civil servants.”

Lim began a class last year with a hypothetical question: “What if IBM comes to Dalian and says they want to build a factory with tax benefits and that they want to take you out to dinner?”

After a dead silence amid the classroom full of Chinese bureaucrats, Charles Chen, a Dalian district field officer, cracked, “Yes, I like,” triggering a swell of laughter.

“No,” Lim responded. “You want to avoid a potential conflict of interest.”

“But how would anyone know?” asked Jason Liu, an aide to Dalian’s mayor.

“Someone always knows,” answered John Wang, a marketing manager at Dalian International Airport.

Other Chinese bureaucrats in the room nodded in agreement.

For Lim, the idea was to have his students see an ethical conflict through the eyes of an American government official. Enjoying a dinner on IBM might seem fine in the closed government structure in Dalian, he said, but in the United States, government officials would have to worry about the ramifications if the media or the public found out about it.

After the lesson, Liu said he saw the wisdom of American disclosure laws, but he feared that no one was ready to enforce them in China yet.

“We lack experience in self-democracy,” said Liu, 40, who keeps quotes from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his pocket. “In the past 5,000 years, we paid no attention to democracy. But in the last decade, we now know it’s important.”

Liu and 28 other ambitious civil servants had to beat out hundreds of other city employees to attend the program.

During the first few days of class, the stern-faced students sat up straight in class, uniformly dressed in business suits.

“In America, we don’t have to do that,” Lim told the group. “It’s casual.”

The students’ eyes widened.

“If you want to leave the classroom, you don’t need permission from me either,” Lim said. “If you need a drink of water or you need to smoke a cigarette -- go.”

They were also taken aback when Lim refused to be addressed as “professor,” asking instead that they simply call him “Joaquin.” When he sat on his desk with his feet up, some wondered if he was taking the course seriously.

When the oldest student, 42-year-old Charlie Cui, looked a little groggy one morning after staying up late to call family back home, Lim quipped: “What’s the matter, Charlie? You have an all-nighter?”

Cui immediately blushed and said, “No.” He had just learned the phrase and was mortified that Lim thought he had done something unsavory the night before. In China, it’s unheard of for a teacher to crack jokes, especially at the expense of the oldest student.

Soon after, a friend of Cui approached Lim before class to say, “Mr. Lim, we want to let you know Charlie is the oldest person in class. If you would stop joking with him, we’d appreciate it.”

“In China, professors and teachers are very strict and formal in character and appearance,” Liu said. “Joaquin is very different. He’s very casual, but I could tell he was still very serious about the things he teaches us. I think it took a while for some students to get accustomed to that.”

Indeed, Lim is not a typical professor by Chinese standards.

He served as a contract negotiator for the U.S. Department of Defense before becoming an economics professor.

The program began in 2001 as a partnership between the city of Dalian and Cal State L.A., where Lim taught at the time.

Lim had gained some fame in the local Chinese American community after he was elected to the Walnut City Council in 1995. He was one of the first local elected officials born in mainland China, and his victory underlined the growing significance of Asian populations in eastern San Gabriel Valley suburbs such as Walnut, Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights.

Lim immediately took to the task of helping Chinese bureaucrats discover American government, even having them observe his reelection campaign in Walnut. When the Dalian program moved to Cal State Pomona a few years later, Lim moved too and became its guiding force.

After a short time in Lim’s latest class, the students were beginning to relax. The business suits were gone. Now they wore jeans, flannel shirts and fleece zip-ups. Some where letting their hair grow thick and shaggy -- something that would be frowned upon in their workplace in Dalian.

Lim wanted to expose them to examples of social freedoms. So on Halloween night, after introducing the group to Pink’s hot dogs, he took them to the West Hollywood parade.

Lim had to explain many of the costumes, including a few “Star Wars” characters. A man in a Dick Cheney mask and an orange hunting vest walked by, astounding the students, who were shocked that someone could mock the vice president so openly.

Barely clothed revelers dancing to the booming music surprised them as well. When a man wearing nothing but a patch over his groin started dancing toward the group, the female students shrieked.

Liu, however, said that after the outing, many of his fellow students marveled at how free Americans are to dress and act as they want.

“Everyone was ordinary and polite,” he said. “I guess that’s American culture.”

Lim believes there is no better laboratory for teaching American government to Chinese officials than Walnut City Hall.

Liu, the Dalian mayoral aide, was drawn to a computer program at the city that tracked thousands of residents’ requests, from building permits to information about garbage pickups. He was also impressed by the city’s efforts to model itself after the private sector.

But the real surprise was when the students attended their first City Council meeting.

In Dalian, such meetings are convened in the morning, the best time for officials to attend. The Walnut City Council meets at 7 p.m. The students watched as resident after resident stood up to complain about problems in their neighborhoods and even openly criticized the elected officials. Lim told them about how a group of residents had fended off the building of a Target store and a recycling plant near the city border.

Afterward, David Yue, a Dalian city attorney, vowed to suggest holding later meetings in his district.

“It’s more open,” Yue said. “I think I’ll bring this idea back.”

Lim wasn’t sure what to expect when he got off the plane from Dalian. It was his first chance to see what his students had done with his teachings.

Most of the students were mid-level officials, and he was unsure how much power they had to change aspects of their work.

“All the examples I gave them may not be implemented in Dalian today. But who knows?” Lim said. “As China evolves . . . maybe they can one day apply all these models.”

But it didn’t take long for Lim to realize he had underestimated his students, who honored him at a private club and provided him with progress reports.

One of his students said he had persuaded his charges to shed the business attire for jeans and polo shirts one day a week -- a Chinese casual Friday.

Another student said he was leading a project to privatize water services in Dalian and was taking Lim’s advice to hire reputable, international accountants to value the agency before it goes private.

Lim sensed that his former students were more comfortable advocating for change using business models rather than citing their study of American municipal government. The apolitical approach was simply safer and it was hard to argue against better efficiency, he said.

“I kept repeating and repeating that we run Walnut like a corporation,” Lim said. “Our budget has to be balanced each year. We decentralize. We delegate. We believe in customer service.”

Yue, the city attorney, told Lim he was indeed pushing to hold district meetings in the evening to accommodate his constituents. Yue was trying to create meeting agendas and figure out ways to release public announcements of government business. Recently, he said, one village council in his district had changed its hearings from the morning to 6 p.m.

“I want to improve the process,” Yue said. “I thought about applying the American ideas to my work.”

On a second trip to Dalian, Lim found his students were continuing to bring changes.

Liu, the mayor’s assistant, was among the most skeptical that he would be able to change anything about his job. When in the United States, he struggled with being away from his family for so long. He got hooked watching Saturday morning cartoons because it reminded him of his daughter.

Now back in Dalian, he missed the time in California. He would sometimes open up a map of Los Angeles County and follow the freeways to campus with his finger. Liu would find Holt Avenue on the map and wonder about the two homeless men he used to see every day.

Liu gave his former teacher a tour of his office building, a modern complex in the center of Dalian. He pointed out a customer service department he had helped establish. Residents could now come in and ask how to apply for permits. Even better, Liu demonstrated, they could also track the permit request’s progress through a website he modeled after the one he saw in Walnut.

“We take a record and try to follow up with everyone,” he told Lim while showing him the software on his laptop.

“You really do that?” Lim asked. “He said ‘Yes.’ He was very serious and he said it was because of me. It felt good. You tend to hear only about the bureaucracy in China. But he turned it around so quickly.”

Ultimately, it was the notion that Lim had started something in Dalian that encouraged him.

“I feel like I planted a seed,” he said.

A few weeks later, Lim welcomed another group and began the process all over again.