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I was at a banquet in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago when I had one of the most surprising conversations about the United States that I've heard in 25 years of foreign travel.
The banquet was being hosted by one of my suppliers. At the table were five other Chinese people, two of whom were older men who'd likely never been out of China. Others were younger, but also didn't speak English.

The fifth was a friend of mine, a fairly highly-ranked Chinese official, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who was methodically climbing the ladder to what he hoped one day would be the Premiership of China. Power-wise, he was the Chinese equivalent of a US Representative, except that Chinese politicians don't run for office and depend instead on appointment by officials that the general public has never even heard of. As strange as this seems to us, it's entirely in line with millennia of Chinese tradition, where Confucius and his followers made a virtual cult of the civil servant.

The talk turned to the recent presidential election and the older Chinese man asked me who I had voted for. Both myself and another American merchant there said "Obama." We had voted for him, we had given money to his campaign. They asked how much money, and I told them: it was roughly two months' salary for the average Chinese factory worker. The older men gave an unmistakable gasp of surprise. For them, voting in an election was exotic, and the idea that an average citizen would give a substantial sum of money to a political candidate must have struck them as totally outlandish.

Finally my politician friend in the Central Committee stood up and said, in Chinese: "That Obama could be elected proves that Americans believe all men are equal. That's what makes America the greatest country in the world!"

Maybe there was a little Chinese flattery there, but it was still a stunning comment, and I was moved. In all my years of travel I have defended (and sometimes condemned) the United States to a wide array of people. However, I don't think I've ever mounted a more eloquent statement of what is great about the United States than the one I heard that night.

Stuart Archer Cohen is the author of The Army of the Republic (St. Martin's Press), a novel about an American insurgency. His previous novels have been translated into 10 languages. www.StuartArcherCohen.com

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