China RPCVs tell Congressman Coffman a thing or two

[In an article published last week in the Denver PostRep. Mike Coffman says he wants the Peace Corps out of China. Coffman, ( a Colorado Republican)  said he was shocked during a recent visit to the country that Peace Corps Volunteers are teaching English in Chinese universities, rather than serving underdeveloped rural areas. “Having the Peace Corps in China, where we have to borrow money from the Chinese to fund it, is an insult to every American taxpayer and to so many of our manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs to China,” he said.

[Coffman is gathering congressional signatures to send a letter to President Barack Obama demanding that the government immediately suspend the Peace Corps program in China. In the letter, Coffman said the U.S. government is short of money to fund its higher-education system while funding a Peace Corps program in China that defrays that country’s higher-education costs. The Peace Corps has about 140 volunteers in China, and at $2.9 million that program represents about 0.5 percent of its total budget in 2011. The Chinese government pays for the housing of the American volunteers.

Over the weekend, I got a note from Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) ) who wrote:  “John, I saw you referred to Coffman’s attack on PC China.  We’ve been organizing some responses — a number of letters sent to him already, and I’ll write something for the Denver Post.  This is the letter the China RPCV group sent, in case you’re interested.” –]

Here is the letter from the  China RPCVs….

September 9, 2011
The Honorable Mike Coffman
1222 Longworth HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Representative:

Your letter to President Obama calling for the suspension of the Peace Corps Program in China has stirred a great deal of concern amongst the hundreds of former Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in southwest China over the past 18 years. For most of us, working in China was an invaluable opportunity to learn about an important  culture and society. The experience was worth more than our monthly stipend of  $125.

That small investment by the U.S. taxpayers will over the long term pay dividends to the United States. Many of the former China Peace Corps Volunteers have gone onto work for the U.S. government as foreign service officers and with the USAID. Today they are serving in Kabul, Manila, Monrovia, Belfast, Maputo, Kingston and multiple cities in China.

Many former China Volunteers also work for other agencies of the U.S. government. They work for nonprofit organizations and support exchange programs such as the Fulbright and the International Visitor Leadership Program. These RPCVs seek to build relationships similar to those that we formed during our years living and working in China. (Such exchange programs have funded overseas travels of 46 Americans who are now current members of our U.S. Congress.)

Returned China Volunteers have written award-winning books about China,  as well as Pulitzer-winning articles. Returned China Volunteers have taken leading positions in international affairs offices at U.S. universities, and they are teaching in our high schools and elementary schools, drawing upon their experiences overseas, specifically their experiences in China.

Because of the Peace Corps,  America has stronger ties with China and the  Chinese people. That is, of course, one of the Three Goals of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps program in China was recently cited during the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange between the U.S. government and the Chinese government.  Secretary of State  Clinton said “We very much appreciate the support that our Friendship Volunteers have received from the Ministry of Education and the China Education Association.

 President George W. Bush, during a visit to Asia in 2002, called for the expansion of the China program, saying, “‘The Peace Corps stands for what we fight for. If we let the Peace Corps shrink, we would be doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do.”

As China has continued to support the development of Confucius Institutes in the United States, having American Peace Corps Volunteers working in far-flung parts of China can be viewed as a reciprocal effort. Young, recently graduated American teachers spend two years in remote areas of China, talking about America, dispelling misperceptions about the United States, and forging lifelong friendships with Chinese students, teachers and citizens of various walks of life. Many times the American volunteers are This increase in mutual understanding is backed by the recent review of the Peace Corps program in China (March, 2011), which included interviews with Chinese school leaders, teachers, and students who have worked with the Peace Corps in China. The review found that: “One of the things most students in Chinese colleges and universities are expected to become the leaders of tomorrow, a more complete knowledge of U.S. and western culture is seen as an important aspect of their education, and since most of the students in the regions served will not live in or travel to the U.S., having Peace Corps Volunteers as teachers and even friends is a good way to learn firsthand about Americans and U.S. culture.”

Recently the U.S. government has developed its “100,000” initiative, which is designed to increase the number of American college students studying in China to a total of 100,000 students spread over the course of the next several years. The Peace Corps has helped lay the groundwork for these efforts in areas of China where Americans aren’t traditionally working or studying.  It has developed connections at colleges and universities all across southwest China that will make the “100,000 Strong” goal more attainable.

 As we observe the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, one of the lessons of that tragedy is that it is in U.S. interest not to cut off meaningful connections with citizens of other countries. This is especially true in places where people may have very different viewpoints than the U.S. Public diplomacy budgets were cut during the 1990’s after the end of the Cold War, with the thought that the need for long-term engagement of that nature had decreased. The U.S. government has since reversed this trend after September 11, making a concerted effort to increase exchanges between countries in the Middle East and countries with large Muslim populations, and increasing opportunities for Americans to learn critical languages like Arabic and Chinese.

Therefore, we feel that the United States should not cut off one of the most effective programs that America has ever established in China. In our national interest, we urge you to reconsider your stance towards the Peace Corps program in China.


The Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of China


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  • Teaching has been a Peace Corps activity since its inception. By 1963, more than half of all volunteers in the field were teachers. Teaching English has always been a popular request by our hosts. Maybe the Congressman missed my history book, “Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010.” Invite him to the luncheon, John, and I’ll give him a free, autographed copy.

  • Does Mr. Coffman know anything about the Three Goals of the Peace Corps? It would appear not. Someone should enlighten him ASAP! In addition, during the 50 years Peace Corps has existed, I’ve never met a returned volunteer who didn’t say he/she gained much more from their experience than they were able to contribute!

  • The Peace Corps must not be an arm of foreign policy. Sargent Shriver knew it and fought for the PC to be a separate agency rather than the originally planned dot on the organization chart of the State Dept. At it’s core PC is a person to person program and many returned volunteers see PC as their finest educational experience. It was mine (India 65-67) and I have a PhD. Rep. Coffman seems blind to the mutual benefits of the experience and the corrosive impact to our stature and relatedness to a tumultuous world if we mess with what remnants remain of PC’s independence.

  • I went from the Peace Corps to being a Foreign Service Officer. Believe me, the State Department never thought of the Peace Corps as being an arm of our foreign policy. We thought of it as a “people to people” diplomacy that hopefully promoted better understanding of each other.

  • When I was going to India in ’65 we were delayed after the war with Pakistan bec Pres. Johnson did not want to show a ’tilt’ towards Pakistan. Harris Wofford sent us to Israel to work on a kibbutz while we waited. The war was over but, while it was a great experience, we waited and waited. Many PC Directors were appointed as a political favor to campaign donors. Some country directors as well. Many knew little about PC or developmental issues. Rep. Coffman wants PC out of China for political reasons unrelated to PC’s person to person focus. You may want to read Larry Brown’s recent book about his experience as a country director in Uganda, “Peasants Come Last.’ Just the title suggests the book’s content and the changes in PC over the years. Brown a former India volunteer in Lillian Carter’s group and a former Harvard Professor was a country director in Uganda after he retired. To my mind PC should be independent. It’s been quite difficult for PC to be independent of foreign policy even as an separate agency of gov’t which is not the same as saying foreign service officers don’t see PC as a person to person program.

  • The Peace Corps is a US Government operation. The Peace Corps staff do enjoy special privileges as US government employees stationed in another country. The Peace Corps Director is part of the Embassy´s “Country Team” under the Ambassador´s direction. Kind of hard to lose those “stripes.” My point, however, is that it is not used as a “tool” to promote US interests or policy. Nor do we use the Fullbright Program, another US Government operation, for that purpose. These programs are to promote better understanding between America and its people and the people of other countries, which I believe is a goal we all share.

  • Leo,Perhaps the most dramatic example of PC’s lack of independence from american foreign policy is when Pres. Johnson was livid at volunteer nurses in the Dominican Republic for helping rebels after Johnson had sent in the marines to support the gov’t against the rebels. The rebels, allowing the volunteers to pass through their lines, called them Kennedy’s children. Johnson used more colorful terms. second example would be Pres. Nixon’s attempt to minimize PC as an independent agency by incorporating PC as a part of a large aid agency. That lasted for 10 years.There are more examples.PC is diminished as a people to people agency when gov’t attempts to impact it’s program for political purposes. Now we have Rep. Coffman.Some agencies need more independence than others. The Congressional Budget Office is one, Justice and PC are others.

  • Peter Hessler’s article in the Denver Post is wonderful. While PC needs to be funded it also needs to protect it’s independence from politics and foreign policy. The consequences of that are complex and sometimes problematic. Rep. Coffman’s actions and PC country director’s position on the team under the direction of the Ambassador are aspects of that as well as the perks they get might not be all that positive. In Sam Brown’s newly published “Peasants Come Last” chapter 9 has something to say about being on the country team. His comments may be controversial and I’d be interested in your reactions. PC is, of course, a national treasure.

  • yes, david, thanks. i do mean larry brown.

    ch 9 is about his going to the monday morning meetings with the ambassador and representatives of all the other agencie heads, aid, military, etc., and his responses to the content and often condescending things they say about uganda. he clearly has a pc ‘people to people’ sensitivity and understands the impact of emotional distance in their work with ugandans.

    in other areas in the book, in the same vein, he talks about the mansion like housing provided him near the embassy, socializing in the diplomatic and american community while living with all the comforts of home (more actually).

    i was in india about 1-2 years before he was and recall pc director and the regional directors purposely living in middle class indian neighborhoods. his book is an easy read. i find him factually descriptive of his experience and sensitive.

    when i read the blogs of present day volunteers i think they’re still having the kind of invaluable coming of age experience that i had. i’m also sure many pc staff are terrific. i think, though, the organization’s tone has changed.

  • RPCVs of Colorado are not mounting a formal campaign, but are suggesting that if members would like, contacting both Coffman and their own Congressperson to express their views would be a good idea. as the letter is circulating in Congress.

  • I appreciate David and Chuck’s exchange about my new book, Peasants Come Last, because the deterioration of Peace Corps deserves the attention of all of us who believe the agency is one of the most important things our nation has ever done for the world. While PC Washington has behaved shamelessly in trying to quash my book, it is important that all RPCVs speak out as we wrestle with how to restore the passion and capacity of Peace Corps for the future.

  • The comments about staff salaries and rank that I posted elsewhere seem to fit in well here.

    “I was also struck by the overseas staff salaries. Admitedly 40 years have passed since I was a CD at $20,300, but CD salaries in the $135,000 -$150,000 range? Gimme a break! There has also been a disappointing trend to ‘grade-creep.’In the old days CDs were FSR 4s and FSR 3s. The FSR 2s and FSR 1s were for Reg’l Directors and the Deputy Director. Now CDs are often 1s and 2s.”

    I fear (and would love to shown to be wrong) that the Peace Corps aparatus has reached the ossification stage, and a staff position is seen as a reward, not a commitment of self and service. In the old days it was a matter of course that Peace Corps staff lived in neighborhoods typical of the country of assignment. A handful of CDs got their knuckles rapped severely for not doing so, and were quickly moved to more appropriate digs.!

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