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Leaders and students reflect on experiences with China in light of Shanghai Temple announcement

Graphic of China flag, handshake, and Latter Day Saints logo, the white Jesus stature with blue background. With words overheard saying, "40 years of building relationships."

Russell  M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, paused and, voice wavering, finished the list of new temple announcements in the April 2020 General Conference with, “Shanghai, People’s Republic of China.”

“I actually wept,” said ‘Uncle’ John Muaina, a retired vice president of the Polynesian Cultural Center, whose professional career and life experiences are closely linked to mainland China. 

Muaina now helps out at the PCC as a senior Human Resources adviser.

“When President Nelson became the president of the Church, I said to myself, ‘If anyone’s  going to be the one to usher in work there in China, it would be fitting that President Nelson be the one.’”

Muaina further explained not only President Nelson’s relationship, but also the Church’s relationship with mainland China goes back to the early days of BYUH and the PCC.

Bobby Akoi, the BYUH chaplain and former director of protocol at the PCC, said his excitement of the announcement of the Shanghai Temple also came in context with the university and PCC’s background with mainland China. 

“I think I cried for 10 minutes. I really had a hard time trying to calm myself down because we’ve seen what the Church, PCC and BYUH have done for the past years to get the Church into China and to develop our relationship.

“Of course, I was grateful. I was so excited for our Chinese saints there right now who have the opportunity now to seal their families together. Some of them already did because they went to Hong Kong, but now they can have their own temple. For me, that’s what this life is all about. It’s getting all of our saints to the temple.”  

For me, that’s what this life is all about. It’s getting all of our saints to the temple.
Bobby Akoi

The Asian Executive Management Program

Part of Muaina’s job involves running the Asian Executive Management Program (AEM), a program that started with six Chinese interns who came to BYUH and the PCC in September 1981. 

Chinese graduates sit with men and a woman in formal attire outside of BYUH.
The Asian Executive Management Program graduates pose for photo several years ago.

“What happens is we assign each of them to different departments at the Polynesian Cultural Center,” explained Muaina.

“We have them also attend their classes just like any regular student, and most people wouldn’t have ever known that they were from mainland China.” 

ChiTi Chen, a student of the AEM program from Fall 2019 to Winter 2020, said she believes the announcement of a temple in Shanghai shows the Church has built a good relationship with China. 

“The AEM program is already 35 years old, and I think it’s a very important bridge to that [relationship]. Sometimes it’s hard to build an official relationship with the government, but it’s easier by the people.”

Chen said she believes it’s less of an official relationship between the Church and the Chinese government that has made the difference, and more so, the individual relationships among the Chinese people and Church members. 

Chen, who said she is “not a member yet,” but attended Church meetings with her friends while in Hawaii, added she is happy for the Chinese people to have a temple in Shanghai. 

“I know that it’s a little bit hard for the Chinese people that they cannot go to the temple. Not only the LDS Church but also for many other religions, they don’t have so many chances to reach out… I believe [a temple in Shanghai] is very big progress for both the Church and the Chinese government.”

The AEM program today usually consists of about four to five interns from China and one from Taiwan. 

Chen said she found out about the AEM program in her homeland of Taiwan through an organization called the Alliance Cultural Foundation selecting applicants to come and attend classes at BYUH without declaring a major, as well as get an inside look at the PCC as a business model. 

“I really like the people [at BYUH and PCC]. I met a lot of managers from PCC… and it inspires me how they treat their employees. The PCC says, ‘One Ohana, Sharing Aloha,’ and it’s not just a slogan. They really do it. I totally felt like I was a part of the ohana when I was at BYU–Hawaii, and it made me feel so good. I know I will go back to that ohana one day.” 

The PCC says, ‘One Ohana, Sharing Aloha,’ and it’s not just a slogan. They really do it.
ChiTi Chen

Chen was not the only one to receive a lasting impression from her time at BYUH and the PCC. One of the first original six Chinese interns, Yiannan Wang, made a statement after her time spent at BYUH and the PCC in 1981, which Muaina said AEM still uses in describing the program today: “I loved Brigham Young University–Hawaii because it changed not only my mind, but it changed my heart.”

A history of Chinese dignitaries and divine meetings  

According to Muaina, Yiannan Wang would later tell her father, a Chinese government official, to visit the PCC if he ever had the chance. A little over two years later, Vice Premier Zhao Ziyang visited BYUH and the PCC, which he chose as his one cultural event during his whole tour of the entire United States, Muaina said.

Muaina, who remembered this historic visit, said Vice Premier Zhao Ziyang arrived by helicopter, landing in the middle of the flag circle on BYUH campus, and upon stepping out to greet the crowd, shouted, “Aloha!” 

His would be the first of many visits from Chinese government officials over the years, including Vice Premier Li Lanqiang in July of 1994. This particular visit was significant, explained Muaina, because of the interaction between the vice premier and President Nelson, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at that time.

According to the Church’s website, President Nelson’s personal history with mainland China involved teaching at Shandong School of Medicine in Jinan, visiting two other Chinese universities and performing a life-saving operation on one of China’s famous opera stars in 1984. 

Muaina said he remembered sitting in the conference room as Vice Premier Li Lanqiang recognized Elder Nelson as the heart surgeon who taught at his alma mater. “And at that point, Li Lanqiang put his hand on the arm of Elder Nelson, and said to all those there, ‘We know Elder Nelson. Elder Nelson is Chinese.’” 

“For a person like myself,” continued Muaina, “and many who were there, we were just so amazed the Lord could bring this together, knowing that Li Lanqiang and Elder Nelson were at the same university… At least for me, it was such an amazing comment that the Lord is very meticulous about how he brings things together.” 

Josie Luo, a senior from Guangdong, China studying TESOL education, who heard President Nelson’s announcement of a temple in Shanghai roughly 25 years later, said what amazes her is God’s timing.

“I didn’t think we would get a temple so soon. I knew there would be one in my lifetime because my patriarchal blessing indicates that. So I knew it would happen one day, but I didn’t think [it would be] that soon.

“When I heard it, I was super overwhelmed because I feel like I’m not ready. A lot of people are not ready for such a big message, but I am amazed how God used imperfect and not humble people to accomplish His work.” Luo compared it to job searching and how certain qualifications must be met, but added that she felt God had qualified them for this blessing even when they did not feel ready. “Mostly, I just felt overwhelmed by His mercy.”

John Muaina standing in a suit and tie in a church building.

Relations between China and the Church

Of the Vice Premier Zhao Ziyang’s visit to Hawaii, Akoi said, “That was really the start of the Chinese governmental leaders coming to PCC. Since 1984, every year, someone has come from China from the Chinese government.

“Several years later, in 1996, President Hinckley knew that we had good relationships with the government… So he asked us to make the arrangements. The person that was in charge was our senior vice president, John Muaina, and he is like our Chinese ambassador for the PCC. Everybody in the government knows John because he goes [to China] all the time. So, John made all the arrangements.” 

On May 28, 1996, President Gordon B. Hinckley became the first president of the Church to visit mainland China, which he did after dedicating the new Hong Kong Temple, according to the Church Newsroom.