Peace Corps’ China withdrawal highlights fight for independence

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala 1988-91)

Peace Corps’ China withdrawal highlights fight for independence

By Michael Igoe from Devex News
 22 January 2020

WASHINGTON — On Friday, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in China awoke to learn that their country program will be closing, after the agency made a formal notification to Congress that it would begin withdrawing volunteers in June.

“We are ending a program that provides an essential human link between these two countries and offers a unique space for mutual understanding and positive cooperation.”

— Steve Hess (China 2006-08)

Among the first to break the news was Republican Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida, who voiced his support for the decision in a statement.

“Today’s decision by the Peace Corps to withdraw its volunteers from China confirms what we all know — China is no longer a developing country,” Rubio wrote Thursday, adding that “Beijing has fooled organizations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization into believing otherwise so it could exploit our global institutions.”

Rubio ends the statement by saying, “It is time for these organizations, both U.S. and multilateral, to change the way they deal with China.”

In December, President Donald Trump joined lawmakers in demanding that the World Bank stop lending to China, despite the fact that his own former Treasury official is currently leading the institution through an agreed-upon process of scaling back lending to middle-income countries, including China.

Peace Corps’ announcement follows years of pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to end the agency’s China program.

In 2011, upon learning that Peace Corps volunteers were teaching English in Chinese universities, Mike Coffman, then a Republican representative from Colorado, described the arrangement as “an insult to every American taxpayer and to so many of our manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs to China.” Coffman gathered signatures for a letter to then-President Barack Obama demanding the Peace Corps’ withdrawal from the country.

A more recent effort to sever the relationship between the Peace Corps and China began in July 2019, when Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, introduced the Peace Corps Mission Accountability Act. Scott’s bill echoes the call for the agency to withdraw its volunteers from China — no later than Sept. 30 of this year — but it also proposes a more radical plan to pull the Peace Corps into tighter alignment with U.S. foreign policy goals.

The bill — S.2320 — argues that “the current position of the Peace Corps as an independent agency … creates a problem of management detrimental to the foreign policy goals of the United States Government.” It proposes transferring the Peace Corps to the Department of State “in order to coordinate the Peace Corps’ work with the overall foreign policy goals of the United States Government.”

Scott’s proposal has faced strong pushback from Peace Corps supporters. Ten former Peace Corps directors — who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents — sent a letter earlier this month to the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urging them to reject the bill.

The former directors said that every president for the last 58 years has reaffirmed the independence of the Peace Corps to ensure that volunteers “would not be confused with those carrying out day to day US foreign and security policies.”

“The international perception of the Peace Corps’ independence and non-political nature is imperative to its continued success. We are deeply concerned that the current legislative proposal S.2320, by ending that independence would place both Volunteers and the Corps itself at grave risk,” they wrote.

It remains unclear whether the Peace Corps’ decision to end its program in China is related to congressional concerns about the agency’s mandate and independence.

The decision comes after five consecutive years of flat funding for the agency, leading to difficult decisions about where and where not to invest in programs, said Jonathan Pearson, advocacy director at the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit organization that serves the Peace Corps community.

Pearson said the decision to end the China program was, in his understanding, the result of a regular review process, which looks at issues related to a country’s economic status, the commitment and support from partner countries, and safety and security, among other factors.

“We don’t know all the specifics, but from what we understand, this is something that has been in the discussion stages for some time and is part of the annual review,” Pearson said.

Pearson also pointed to a bill proposed in the House of Representatives that would reauthorize the Peace Corps at a higher annual funding level and better support current, returning, and former volunteers. Hailed by the NPCA, that bill was introduced by Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, who served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968.

Some current, former, and prospective Peace Corps China volunteers appeared caught off guard by last week’s announcement, taking to online message boards and Twitter to seek and share information — or glimpses of their lives as Americans living in China.

A former China volunteer Steve Hess — now an assistant professor of political science at Transylvania University — created an online petition calling for the reversal of the decision to withdraw from the country.

“At a time in which Sino-American relations are more important than ever,” Hess wrote in an email to Devex, “we are ending a program that provides an essential human link between these two countries and offers a unique space for mutual understanding and positive cooperation.”

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  • January 23, 2020
    Response to Peace Corps closing China program

    “Why Peace Corps China?” was often the response when I told people that I was country director for China. In fact, it was my own question when I was offered the post, right after, “Peace Corps is in China?”. However, as I learned more about China and the Peace Corps program started there in 1993, I became a strong believer in the soundness of the effort by the first President Bush to open the program. Going by the numbers, with over 1300 volunteers who have taught almost three-quarters of a million students, the impact is real. Most of the students are young women, which fits in with the continuing emphasis on economic empowerment of women, who become teachers at all levels and influence their students: widening ripples from each stone thrown into the pool. For the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps in 2011, we estimated that since 1993 in China, volunteers had served in over 70 vocational schools, colleges, and universities and taught more than 350,000 students, who along with English skills gained a better understanding of Americans, before going on to become teachers. In addition to classroom teaching, Volunteers developed deeper connections and lasting friendships by starting special projects ranging from staging a Shakespeare play to starting a flag football league to town litter pick up walks.

    But in the training session I taught Volunteers with the “Why Peace Corps China” title, I emphasized all three goals of Peace Corps – to bring a skill, to help others better understand Americans, and to help Americans better understand the people we serve. As I told the trainees, Peace Corps is a like a house: goal one is the key that opens the door, but goals two and three are where we live. In fact, although it was hotly contested at the time, the name agreed to back 1993, succinctly states the mission: US China Friendship Volunteers. As was emphasized to me as a new country director, there is no more important bilateral relationship with a greater need for better person-to-person understanding, than that between our two countries.

    When Peace Corps began in 1961 then Secretary of State Dean Rusk summed up what continues to make Peace Corps Volunteers the best face of the American people overseas: “The Peace Corps is not an instrument of foreign policy because to make it so would rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.”

    Bonnie Thie, retired, Country Director for China 2008-2013 (PCV Afghanistan 1971-1974)

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