Peace Corps’ sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Michael Varga (Chad 1977-79)

Peace Corps’ sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback
BY REBECCA BEITSCH – 02/12/20 06:00 AM EST 123

The Peace Corps’ abrupt decision to end its program in China has spurred confusion, including from lawmakers who question whether the agency is caving to political pressure from Florida’s two Republican senators.

Congress was informed of the decision on Jan. 16, when the agency sent a note to the appropriations committees that it would be withdrawing from China, ending a program where volunteers teach English to university students in some of the nation’s poorest interior provinces.

The drumbeat to get the Peace Corps out of China was led by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has pressed to strip it of independent status under the White House while blocking it from placing volunteers in any “hostile nations.”

Scott has introduced legislation to place the Peace Corps under the State Department.

Steve Hess, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2006 to 2008 and is now a political science professor at Transylvania University, is leading a Change.org petition pushing the Peace Corps to reverse its decision.

“The fact that Scott was trying to put them under the State Department and also had in the legislation to end the China program gave a lot of us the suspicion that basically Peace Corps almost sacrificed the China program to save the independence of the rest of the agency,” Hess said.

Peace Corps volunteers in China only learned their service was in jeopardy after Scott’s fellow Florida senator, Republican Marco Rubio, tweeted out the news.

The tweets also ignited the effort to try and save the program, with critics arguing the already-tense relationship between China and the U.S. favors keeping in place an organization whose main goal is to promote world peace and friendship.

A source with knowledge of the Peace Corps’ China program told The Hill the decision to leave the country was closely held at the highest levels, with political appointees sidelining the career staff who oversee the program, informing them only after the decision had been made.

“It was made at a very high level without consulting what seems like appropriate staff,” the source said. “It just doesn’t fit with Peace Corps’ mission. It wasn’t handled to the standard that I think the agency normally holds for auditing and closing a program. It happened really quick without taking into account factors that would normally be taken into account.”

The Peace Corps press office did not respond to numerous questions sent by The Hill seeking the rationale behind the decision, sending only a statement announcing its withdrawal from China issued weeks after notifying Congress. Peace Corps leaders also did not answer questions when approached by The Hill after leaving a meeting with lawmakers.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, said he wanted to learn more about the decision.

“I think one of the great strengths of Peace Corps is the idea that you have volunteers on the ground in countries that are able to express United States values in a nonpolitical way,” he said.

Scott told The Hill he’s not sure if his bill had anything to do with the decision.

He said his concern is twofold: He doesn’t think the Peace Corps should be in a nation as wealthy as China — let alone one he considers a threat to the U.S. — and he also wants to channel the diplomatic benefits of the Peace Corps differently.

“We should get a return on every dollar we spend,” Scott said, referencing taxpayer money.

“Peace Corps doesn’t go into developed countries. Right? That’s what they do, they go into developing countries. This is a developed country. So if you look at the Peace Corps criteria, they’re not meeting their own criteria.”

The Peace Corps typically works in developing nations but doing so isn’t explicitly part of their mission of promoting world peace. Their guiding principles are cultural exchange and helping “people of interested countries in meeting their need for skilled individuals.”

And while China’s economy is certainly growing, much of that growth has been distributed unequally. It is ranked 85th on the United Nations Human Development Index, behind Costa Rica, Panama, Albania, Colombia, Mexico and Peru — all of which have a Peace Corps program.

Rubio said economics aside, the U.S. has no business putting volunteers in China.

“Given the situation in China today where there’s so much restriction placed on any sort of interaction with what news people can consume, who they can worship or how they can worship, what they read, who they interact with combined with the fact that that program doesn’t have unlimited resources, it has to be allocated to the places where it can make the most impact,” he said.

Supporters of keeping the Peace Corps in China say it helps U.S. diplomacy.

“The United States should maintain a Peace Corps presence in China. And it would be in my view a mistake to pull out of China,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who served in Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

“I’ve yet to find a reason that justifies pulling out. Clearly China is a developed nation, but not everywhere. And the presence of the Peace Corps provides an important opportunity for Americans to gain an understanding of modern-day Chinese culture and society,” he said. “That would be of significant value for American diplomacy.”

Hess pointed to volunteers who move on to careers in development and diplomacy in arguing that the Peace Corps should retain its role in China.

“Our reputation with China is so fraught right now,” he said. “The reality of it is that China is such an important partnership. It’s not like we can have this adversarial relationship with them permanently, because we’re already so intertwined with them. They’re our largest trading partner, and to solve world problems we need to work with China. And Peace Corps was a part of maintaining that relationship.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus further sped the Peace Corps’ exit from the country, with volunteers evacuated in early February. That decision circumvents what likely would have been the next battle between the Peace Corps and Scott. The agency said in its letter to Congress that it wanted to allow volunteers in the country to finish out their service, with groups of volunteers leaving in stages just had they come in.

The agency’s official announcement on the withdrawal says the Peace Corps decided to “graduate” its program, a term typically used to describe a joint decision between both countries to end volunteer presence.

“They hadn’t been told by [Chinese] partners that we were not meeting needs or that we weren’t needed anymore,” the source familiar with the China program told The Hill. “They’re really cutting us off from being able to promote people-to-people diplomacy in a country where it could be argued that it’s most needed.”

 

6 Comments

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  • Glad to read the above, and finally some intelligent discussion. The question of PC “Independence” as a critical factor in keeping it free of current and changing US Gov’t foreign policy has been debated frequently and at length, going back to the very first year. Various efforts over a half century to change it , and make serving PCVs propagandists for current foreign policy decisions, and invariably and by extension made suspect in the minds of host country nationals, have been consistently reversed, and with good reason.

    Not surprising that FL Senators Scott and Rubio would be bringing it up again, As far as I can tell, neither were even born (or at least not yet in the Fourth Grade in school) when the PC was created.

    Thanks to Congressmen Kennedy and Garamendi for their perspective., and for the author(s) of this article for reminding everyone that there are THREE goals (i.e. purposes) of the PC, going back to the very beginning. It isn’t just another “Foreign Aid Program”. Tellingly, Sen Scott’s wish that we were “Getting our money’s worth” simply underscores his historical ignorance.

    John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment -63 -64 -65.

  • John Turnbull,

    Your Senator, Tom Udall, is a Minority member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Senate. Would you be willing to contact his office and ask if the Peace Corps Director consulted with his Committee before announcing the closing of the China Program? The Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018 stated:

    SEC. 203. CONSULTATION WITH CONGRESS REQUIRED BEFORE OPENING OR
    CLOSING OVERSEAS OFFICES AND COUNTRY
    PROGRAMS.

    Section 10 of the Peace Corps Act (22 U.S.C. 2509) is amended by
    adding at the end the following new subsection:
    “(k)(1) <> Except
    as provided in paragraph (2), the Director of the Peace Corps may not
    open, close, significantly reduce, or suspend a domestic or overseas
    office or country program unless the Director has notified and consulted
    with the appropriate congressional committees at least 15 days in
    advance.

    “(2) <> The Director of
    the Peace Corps may waive the application of paragraph (1) for a period
    of not more than 5 days after an action described in such paragraph if
    the Director determines such action is necessary to ameliorate a
    substantial security risk to Peace Corps volunteers or other Peace Corps
    personnel.

    “(3) <> For the purposes of this subsection,
    the term `appropriate congressional committees’ means–
    “(A) the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on
    Appropriations of the House of Representatives; and
    “(B) the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee
    on Appropriations of the Senate.”.

    • John,

      Senator Udall also sits on the Committee of Appropriations of the Senate. It would be really interesting to
      get his opinion of this.

  • I would urge RPCVs to check to see if they have a Senator or Representative from their state sitting on these committees. If they do, then ask if the Director of the Peace Corps “consulted” with the committee before announcing the closing of the China program.

    Senator Scott does not sit on any of the committees. Why he thinks the Peace Corps Director should report to him is a mystery to me. But no one has stood up for her right to her own independence. Where are the former PC directors? They wrote a letter defending the independence of the Peace Corps. But, I don’t think that Jody Olsen has been specifically championed for standing up to Senator Scott. She was appointed to the Director position by President Trump and confirmed by a Republican Senate. She does not answer to any Senator.

  • I’m working on it Joanne, and hope to get some information next week, when Washington staffers are available. John Turnbull

  • Thank you, John. Whatever you find out should be valuable and give a clue as to how the decision to leave China was
    actually made.

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