The Peace Corps Breaks Ties with China
The agency has always been viewed as removed from political spats. But the timing of the U.S.’s decision seems suspicious.
By Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
March 9, 2020
The author, lower left, with other China 3 volunteers in front of the Forbidden City, in Beijing, in 1996.Photograph courtesy the author
On the morning of January 17th, shortly before I was scheduled to meet with a hundred and forty Peace Corps volunteers in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, there was an unexpected announcement that the China program was ending. The Peace Corps had first come to the country in 1993, and as a volunteer from the early years I had been asked to speak at an in-service training that the organization was holding in a hotel near where I live. But by the time I arrived nobody was in the mood for nostalgia. The American volunteers, most of whom were in their twenties, looked stunned; some were red-eyed from crying. At the back of the room, more than a dozen Chinese staff members stood with stoic expressions. They had given up some benefits of the Chinese system in order to work for the American agency. From the ceiling, somebody had hung a red propaganda-style banner, which proved that Americans could make their slogans every bit as tone-deaf as the ones in the People’s Republic. The banner said “Welcome to IST 2020: Be the Tree You Wish to See in the World.”
An American staff member greeted me with a pained look. She said something to the effect that the tree she wished to have seen was a tactful announcement, but Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, of Florida, had declared the closure of the China program on Twitter. “Rubio and Rick Scott wanted to take credit for it,” she said angrily.
The Peace Corps has sent more than thirteen hundred volunteers to China, and the agency, which is now active in sixty countries, has always been viewed as removed from political spats. The U.S. had never ended a Peace Corps program because of a diplomatic conflict, but the timing of the decision about China seemed suspicious. The coronavirus had yet to come to widespread attention, and the Senators, who had previously expressed doubts about a Chinese trade deal, tweeted the day after President Trump signed a Phase 1 economic agreement with China.
“For too long, Beijing has fooled organizations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization,” Rubio wrote. Scott chimed in: “I’m glad the Peace Corps has finally come to its senses and sees Communist China for what it is: the second largest economy in the world and an adversary of the United States.”
Chinese hard-liners also celebrated. In Guanchazhe, a conservative publication, a columnist named Pan Gongyu published a commentary, “Farewell, Peace Corps in China, We Won’t See You Off.” The title echoed “Farewell, Leighton Stuart!,” a famous essay that Mao Zedong wrote in August, 1949. That month, the U.S. State Department had issued a white paper that, in more than a thousand tortured pages, tried to explain how America had “lost” China to Mao’s revolutionaries: “This is a frank record of an extremely complicated and most unhappy period in the life of a great country to which the United States has long been attached by ties of closest friendship.”
In his essay, Mao derided American democracy as “another name for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” and he celebrated the departure of John Leighton Stuart, the last U.S. Ambassador to China under the Kuomintang government. For years, the isolationist essay was part of the school curriculum, and many Chinese people recognize the ending: “Leighton Stuart has departed and the White Paper has arrived, very good, very good. Both events are worth celebrating.”
In Guanchazhe, Pan described the Peace Corps’s “ideological and cultural export” as another chapter in American failure: “After twenty-seven years in China, the U.S. diplomatic offices intended to ‘raise wolves,’ but ended up with a litter of huskies.” He concluded, “The Peace Corps has departed and the U.S.-China Trade Agreement is here, very good, very good. Both events are worth celebrating.”
In the fall of 1996, the Peace Corps sent me to teach English to college students in Fuling, a remote city on the Yangtze River. I was twenty-seven years old, and I was joined by another volunteer, Adam Meier, who was twenty-two. Not long after we arrived, a student named Richard submitted an essay to my writing class titled “Why Americans Are So Casual.” Richard was skinny, shy, and bespectacled. He had grown up in Fuling, and most of his classmates came from the Sichuanese countryside. At the time, China’s population was more than seventy per cent rural, and only eight per cent of students went to college. Adam and I were the first Americans to live in Fuling since the Revolution. In his essay, Richard wrote, in English:
Our foreign language teachers—Peter and Adam—came to teach us this term. It provides a good opportunity of understanding the American way of life. In my opinion, they are more casual than Chinese people. Why do I think so? I’ll give you some facts to explain this.
We were part of a Peace Corps cohort known as China 3. The agency’s groups have always been numbered, perhaps because it implies a sense of mission. The Peace Corps was founded by President John F. Kennedy, in 1961—the year of Saturn 1 and Sputnik 9. In the same way that the Apollo rockets went up in sequence, each Peace Corps cohort was intended to travel to a distant land, build on the work of its predecessors, then return home. And, just like the rockets, the Peace Corps was a Cold War endeavor. It was inspired by “The Ugly American,” a 1958 novel that warned readers that the Soviets were doing a better job of grassroots work in the developing world. The Peace Corps had three goals: to provide useful assistance to “interested countries,” to improve understanding of the United States, and to help Americans understand the rest of the world.
By the time I joined, relatively few volunteers were aware of these Cold War roots. Time had moved on, or maybe it had stopped—this was the era of “The End of History and the Last Man,” the 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama, who declared the triumph of Western liberal democracy. In 1996, the Peace Corps was sending volunteers to Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and other former Soviet-bloc states that had supposedly transitioned to democracy. China was the only Communist country that accepted volunteers.
Deng Xiaoping had welcomed the Peace Corps as part of his Reform and Opening strategy, but some Chinese officials weren’t convinced that Americans should be working in remote places like Fuling. They referred to the program by a euphemism—Meizhong Youhao Zhiyuanzhe, or “U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers”—because the Chinese translation of “Peace Corps” had been tainted by years of Maoist propaganda. The first three cohorts were small, which made it easier for the government to track us. The curiosity of locals was even more intense. Richard’s essay continued:
For example, when Mr. Hessler is having class, he can scratch himself casually without paying attention to what others may say. He dresses up casually, usually with his belt dropping and dangling. But, to tell you the truth, it isn’t considered a good manner in China, especially in old people’s eyes.
China 3 consisted of fourteen volunteers, and, before joining, none of us had taken a single class in Chinese language, history, politics, or culture. In those days, Peace Corps applicants didn’t choose their destinations. All the China 3 volunteers were white, and had almost no experience in the developing world; one, from Mississippi, had never been on an airplane before. The majority came from the Midwest or the South—Adam was from Wisconsin, and I was a Missourian. For many of us, the Peace Corps represented an inexpensive way to go abroad.
Our students were majoring in English, another project of Reform and Opening. China was expanding compulsory English education, which created new demand for instructors; after graduation, our students would be assigned to teach in middle and high schools. But their concept of the outside world remained abstract. They had no Internet access, and the Communist Party published all their texts, including a cultural-studies book called “Survey of Britain and America.” A chapter about American history began, naturally enough, with China: “The Indians living in America originated from Asia some 25,000 years ago.” After listing some key details about the European discovery of the New World—“it also opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie”—the text proceeded to the founding of the United States. (“The Constitution of 1787 established the dictatorship of the American bourgeoisie.”) A section about contemporary society claimed that nowadays most New Englanders work in factories. (“They are good at making watches and clocks.”) There was some useful information about American slang. (“For example, ‘draw one’ or ‘shoot one’ means ‘pour a cup of coffee.’ ”) Chapter 4 covered “Social Problems”:
Homosexuality is a rather strange social phenomenon that most people can hardly understand. It widely spreads. One reason for this may be the despair in marriage or love affairs.
The chapter concluded by explaining the primary cause of homosexuality and other social problems:
The most important reason is the capitalist system of America. In this capitalist society, although science and technology is highly advanced, some people are suffering from spiritual hollowness. Thus they start to look for things curious and exciting.
In part to keep the students as far as possible from “Survey of Britain and America,” Adam and I used whatever we could find as teaching materials. We brought photographs of family to class, and we made copies of articles from American magazines. When we received our absentee ballots for the 1996 Presidential election, Adam and I each gave a lecture on the U.S. political system to a section of senior students. At the end, we took out the ballots, allowed the students to inspect them, and voted.
The students became very quiet when I handed them my ballot. We were in a small, unheated room, packed with more than forty simple wooden desks. One by one, the students examined the piece of paper. By the time I retrieved the ballot and voted for Bill Clinton, the room was so silent, and they were watching with such intensity, that my heart was racing. Not long afterward, a Peace Corps staffer in Chengdu reported that college officials had called and weren’t happy about what Adam and I had done. But the college left it at that—such communication was often indirect.
The people who were farthest away seemed the most likely to perceive a threat. Students were thrilled, whereas our Chinese colleagues were curious but guarded. College administrators were warier, but even they were proud to have foreigners on campus. Opponents of the program tended to be at the Chinese provincial or national level.
The American reaction was the opposite. Recently, I talked with William Speidel, a Sinologist who served as the first Peace Corps China director, and he remembered the attitude of State Department officials. “They were overjoyed,” he said. “The idea that Peace Corps had a foothold in quote-unquote Communist China was really something.”
Speidel commissioned a linguist to design a course in Mandarin, and, in remote places, a hardworking volunteer could gain fluency in only two years, the length of a Peace Corps assignment. Many volunteers had studied pedagogy as undergrads, and often they returned to teach in U.S. classrooms. But there were others whose life paths were radically transformed. They became diplomats, civil servants, businesspeople, or scholars specializing in China. Today, twenty-seven former China volunteers, including Adam, work in the State Department, and there are others at organizations like U.S.A.I.D.
Journalists and writers were also common. Michael Meyer, a China 2 volunteer from Minnesota, went on to write three books about the country. In my cohort, three of us became China correspondents and authors. All told, former volunteers have published at least eleven nonfiction books about China.
I sometimes wondered how the situation looked to Communist intelligence analysts. In 1999, I moved to Beijing while preparing to publish my first book, about my experience in Fuling, and there was a period when I sensed that I was being watched with particular attention. There were strange encounters in my neighborhood, and a couple of former students back in the Fuling region reported being intimidated by security agents who showed up because of their connection with me. In Beijing, at a couple of government-sponsored events, Foreign Ministry officials sought me out with pointed questions: Why did you study English literature if you planned to go to China? Why did you teach in such an undeveloped place?
They clearly worried that teaching had been a cover for intelligence work, and they seemed baffled by the Peace Corps. The organization didn’t attract many people from élite backgrounds, and it paid volunteers about a hundred and twenty dollars a month. Speidel’s Chinese staff had been assigned to him by the government, so there was no question that some lines of information ran straight to security, along with the likely phone taps. But nobody from Peace Corps headquarters ever told me what I should or should not teach, and staff visited Fuling only twice in two years. At its best, the Peace Corps was an expression of American confidence: if you sent motivated young people to remote places and left them alone, good things were likely to happen.
Recently, I reminisced about the era with somebody from Fuling who is well connected in the Communist Party. He confided that the Fuling volunteers were supposed to be sent to Wanxian, another Yangtze city, whose name was eventually changed to Wanzhou. But officials were concerned that the city was too close to the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam, where Americans might learn sensitive information. So they pushed us a hundred and thirty miles upstream. Of course, I ended up writing about the dam anyway. And, after the Peace Corps finally got into Wanzhou, the organization posted a China 7 volunteer named Jake Hooker there. Despite having no Chinese background, Hooker learned the language to a remarkable level, and he proved that it didn’t matter who got sent downriver. In 2008, as a reporter for the Times, Hooker won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how rural Chinese factories were exporting toxic ingredients for use in pharmaceutical products.
In 1998, during my last year as a volunteer, I didn’t notice two national developments that later proved to be significant. One was the system of Internet restrictions that became known in English as the Great Firewall. The other was a speech delivered by President Jiang Zemin, at Peking University, on May 4, 1998. Jiang’s words were hardly dynamic (“the future of the motherland is infinitely glorious”), but, more than twenty years later, if you say “Project 985,” many educated Chinese people recognize the reference to the year and the month of Jiang’s speech. The President called for the development of world-class universities, and this endeavor joined Project 211—the Chinese fetish for mission-oriented numerology exceeds even that of the Peace Corps. These programs involved university expansion and improvement, and they reflected a strategy that was hard for Americans to grasp: the idea that education and restriction could proceed in tandem.
During the period that followed, the country’s over-all growth was so intense that Peace Corps cohorts could be represented by micro-histories. The year that China 8 arrived, the country joined the World Trade Organization. By China 12, the Three Gorges Dam had been completed. China 14 was the Beijing Olympics. Between China 1 and China 16, the G.D.P. increased more than tenfold. When I taught in Fuling, the college had about two thousand students; by China 10, there were twenty thousand, on a brand-new campus.
In the classroom, even smaller histories showed how the system worked at the lowest level. One of my students, a poor boy who grew up on a farm, where his family planted potatoes, corn, and tobacco, took the English name Mo. Mo’s father had a third-grade education and his mother never attended school, but a village schoolteacher inspired Mo, who became the only boy from his class to test into college. In Fuling, he joined the Communist Party, and every summer he returned home to haul sixty-pound sacks of tobacco to market. When some of Mo’s classmates started giving themselves English surnames, he asked Adam and me for advice, which was how he became Mo Money. (Another China 3 micro-history was the series of prominent deaths that occurred in the span of six months and that, at least in my mind, are forever connected: Tupac Shakur, Deng Xiaoping, and Biggie Smalls.)
After graduation, Mo Money accepted a teaching job in his rural home town. Among the students was his younger brother. It was the community version of education by the bootstraps: somebody escapes the village to attend college, then returns and pulls up the others. For three years, Mo taught his brother and more than forty classmates, and his brother tested into the Fuling college, too. He entered as China 8 arrived. Of the four children in Mo Money’s family, three graduated from college, and all are now middle class.
When this happens at scale across a population of more than a billion, the effects are staggering. Mo currently teaches in a school in Chongqing, and recently I asked him what percentage of his graduating students from last year made it to university. “Every one of them,” he said. In terms of national statistics, the college-entrance figure—seven per cent for Mo’s year—is now forty-eight per cent.
The Peace Corps China groups started to expand with China 4, which was also the first cohort to include an African-American volunteer. There were significantly more women than men that year, and that became the general pattern. In 2014, the Peace Corps started allowing applicants to specify which country or region they wanted to work in, and China became a coveted assignment. Yung-Mei Haloski, a China 4 volunteer who later worked in recruitment and placement for the Peace Corps, told me that China was seen as a top priority. “I was always directed that the people who had the most skills should go to China,” she said.
By China 17, the Peace Corps was sending between seventy and eighty volunteers per year, and the program had expanded into undeveloped parts of Gansu and Guizhou provinces. But some volunteers went to Sichuanese cities that had become much more connected and sophisticated. Chengdu acquired the nickname Gaydu, because of a relative tolerance for gay culture that would have been unimaginable during the days of “Survey of Britain and America.” (“It widely spreads.”) With China 21, the Peace Corps sent a same-sex married couple for the first time.
In August, 2018, Jody Olsen, the Peace Corps director appointed by President Trump, came to China to celebrate the program’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The Peace Corps hoped to move into even more remote places, and Olsen and Stephen Claborne, the head of the China program, met with officials in Beijing. The Chinese politely rejected the request. “The message was that they were happy with it the way it was,” Claborne told me recently.
The Chinese strategy never changed: education and restriction continued in parallel, like opposite lanes of the same highway. Today’s citizens are often more tolerant and aware, but the Great Firewall is also more sophisticated than ever. Many topics of civic interest, ranging from the Hong Kong protests to concentration camps that sequester Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, are highly censored. Even as the government became more comfortable with the Peace Corps, it restricted other organizations, and a 2017 law made it increasingly difficult for foreign N.G.O.s to operate. If you connect all the micro-histories—each individual improvement in material and educational circumstance—they still don’t add up to political change. Mo Money remains a member of the Communist Party.
In 2018, during a visit to Fuling, I happened to run into my first-year student Richard. Like Mo, Richard has prospered as a high-school teacher. During our conversation, he quickly brought up the lecture about absentee ballots. “That made a deep impression,” he said. “I’ve always thought about that.”
Recently, a couple of other former students also mentioned the incident in positive terms, which surprised me. I had thought of it as a clumsy attempt by two young teachers to deal with a frustrating political environment. Even now, I can’t tell exactly what lessons the students took away. I occasionally send survey questions to the people I taught, and in 2017 I asked if China should become a multiparty democracy. Out of thirty respondents, twenty-two said no. “China is going well this way,” one former student wrote. Others were more cynical. “We already have one corrupt party, it will be much worse if we have more,” one man wrote. Another student remarked, “We have seen America with multi-party, but you have elected the worst president in human’s history.”
Rick Scott began demanding an end to Peace Corps China in the summer of 2019. “What the Peace Corps shouldn’t be doing is propping up our adversaries with U.S. tax dollars,” the Senator said, in a statement. Such criticism had also been made in 2011, by Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado. Scott introduced a bill that would cancel programs “in hostile countries, like China,” and place the Peace Corps under the oversight of the State Department.
The agency has always functioned independently within the executive branch, in part to prevent programs from being manipulated as direct tools of foreign policy. No other senators signed on to Scott’s bill, but he continued to attack the Peace Corps and China. His criticism of both seemed to be recent. Before entering politics, Scott reportedly amassed a fortune of more than two hundred million dollars as an entrepreneur in the health-care industry. In two terms as governor of Florida, from 2011 to 2019, Scott welcomed Chinese investors to the state, and he chaired Enterprise Florida, a pro-business consortium that has offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. A blind trust held by the Governor included stocks with ties to Chinese companies.
Once Scott entered the Senate, though, he became a vocal opponent of China. In response to the Senator’s pressure, Claborne, the head of the China program, received an unusual request from Peace Corps headquarters. Scott wanted to analyze Peace Corps China in business terms, examining the return on investment. “He was looking for things like how many volunteers came back and started businesses and created wealth because of their work in China,” Claborne told me.
Claborne worried that somebody with little understanding of the Peace Corps was being allowed to redefine how it should be valued. He also believed that Scott’s point that China is now a developed nation was irrelevant. Nothing in the Peace Corps mission statement specifies that partner countries must be poor, and the agency often looks closely at the Human Development Index, which considers a range of factors, including access to education. But the Peace Corps asked Claborne to assemble materials about return on investment, which he assumed were passed on to Scott. The Senator declared himself unsatisfied, and the Peace Corps never responded publicly.
The director, Olsen, had a long history with the agency, including time as a volunteer in Tunisia, in the nineteen-sixties. Some members of the Peace Corps community had feared that the Trump Administration would bring in an outsider to dismantle the agency, so Olsen’s appointment was greeted with relief. But, when the China program was attacked, Olsen stayed silent.
The pressure on the Peace Corps was connected to a growing anti-China sentiment. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the era of “Farewell, Leighton Stuart!”—a frustration that China has not followed a path that Americans would prefer. Many China specialists are concerned that the U.S. is overreacting. James Millward, a Georgetown University historian who is a vocal critic of China’s treatment of Uighurs, told me that he opposed cutting off the Peace Corps and other forms of engagement. He believes that the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to sanction human-rights violators, should be applied to Chinese organizations and individuals who are active in the concentration camps. “It’s a measure that should be more directly associated with what is going on in Xinjiang, rather than keeping people from teaching English in Chengdu,” he said.
But the issue was settled quickly, behind closed doors. In November, the National Security Council held a meeting about Peace Corps China, chaired by Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national-security adviser. Pottinger is a former journalist in Beijing who subsequently joined the Marines, and he is known for his hawkish views on China. A senior official who served on the N.S.C. during the Obama Administration told me that it’s unheard of for a deputy-level meeting to be held about a specific volunteer program. Peace Corps China cost $4.2 million in 2018, less than the State Department spent on the International Pacific Halibut Commission. “If you are deputy national-security adviser, you should have much more important issues on your plate,” the official said. “Think about what’s happening in November. Shouldn’t he be meeting on Iran?”
The following month, Olsen submitted a letter to the Office of Management and Budget announcing that Peace Corps China would be closed. Olsen’s letter noted that budgetary funds would be freed up for use in other places, mentioning three possible sites that don’t currently have volunteers: the Solomon Islands, Vietnam, and Greenland. There has been speculation that these countries were named in order to appeal to various geopolitical interests within the Administration. The Solomon Islands would satisfy those hoping to counter China’s influence in the Pacific, and a new program in Vietnam would fulfill the old idea of battling Communism. And Greenland because—well, because Greenland.
The day that the closure was announced, I had dinner with one of the Peace Corps’s Chinese staff members. The government no longer assigned people to these positions, and many of the thirty-plus staffers had applied hoping for better relations between China and the United States. They had largely given up the opportunity for social-security benefits in order to work for the American agency, whose status meant that some staff had difficulty applying for mortgages and credit cards. The woman I dined with asked me not to use her name, because the Peace Corps hadn’t yet negotiated severance packages.
The agency had informed staff and volunteers that China would be “graduating”—it was now so developed that it no longer needed Peace Corps teachers. But, the woman asked me, “if that was the case, why were they trying to expand so recently?” She added, “It’s like a divorce by one side,” noting that the news came less than a week before the lunar New Year holiday. Back in the U.S., the Peace Corps had already invited scores of new volunteers to serve in the next China cohort; now those applicants had to be reassigned. Helen Lowman, a former Peace Corps regional director who organized the graduation of programs in Romania and Bulgaria in the past decade, told me that she had never heard of such an abrupt and chaotic decision to phase out a country. “I probably talked to the host-country government for three years before we actually closed,” she said.
After dinner with the staff member, I met some volunteers at a hip bar called Commune. Such Communist chic wasn’t part of the Chengdu landscape when I served, although other things remained recognizable as the Peace Corps experience. A couple of volunteers quietly brought their own beer in bags. For China 25, the monthly stipend was less than three hundred dollars.
An African-American woman named Khloe Benton told me that she had been posted to a site in Gansu that had few foreign residents. “It’s been hard,” she said. “People follow me around, and they say things.” But she believed that it was important for locals to meet a person of color. The Peace Corps had told volunteers that they would finish out their terms, and they tried to cheer one another up.
“You know why they lied to us,” another woman said, referring to the political pressure. “They didn’t have a choice.”
Eleven days later, the coronavirus caused the evacuation of all China volunteers. The same thing had happened with sars, in 2003, but the Peace Corps had returned the following year. This time, the program was finished—the last micro-history belonged to China 25. The volunteers had spent a little more than six months in the country.
One official in the State Department told me there were rumors that the White House had threatened the Peace Corps with budget cuts if it didn’t end the China program. When I asked Rick Scott, he said that he didn’t know how the Administration had made the decision, although he described his meetings with Jody Olsen and other Peace Corps officials. “I said, ‘What I’ve been told is that the volunteers who are there, they don’t coördinate anything with the State Department, they don’t promote American values, they don’t promote capitalism,’ ” Scott said. I asked if he had received the materials about return on investment, and whether they included such information as the number of volunteers who became diplomats.
“I asked the Peace Corps about that,” Scott said. “They didn’t know of one person who had ever gone to the State Department from the Peace Corps.”
I said that twenty-seven former China volunteers now work in the State Department, and asked if this knowledge might have changed his mind. “I’d have to get more information,” he said, adding that the Peace Corps hadn’t been forthcoming. I had no way of checking this, because the Peace Corps and Olsen ignored multiple requests for an interview.
It occurred to me that this would have been a good follow-up lesson to our Fuling lectures about American democracy. In the nineties, we had known that the Chinese could cancel the program at any time. It had seemed a small miracle that local colleges were somehow able to communicate to high-level conservatives that Peace Corps teachers were worth the risk.
Twenty years later, though, the Americans had discussed nothing openly, and Peace Corps administrators must have been either so frightened or so incompetent that they hadn’t defended themselves. The ideas that inspired “The Ugly American”—the importance of grassroots and local knowledge—had been abandoned. During our conversation, Scott acknowledged that he and his staff had not spoken with any current or former China volunteers.
The old confidence had also vanished. It seemed part of a larger American trend: every foreign contact was a threat, every exchange was zero-sum. Instead of trusting themselves and their best models, people regressed to the paranoia of those with closed systems. In the Washington Examiner, a conservative magazine, Tom Rogan celebrated the end of Peace Corps China. When Rogan mentioned the Chinese Ministry of State Security, he probably had no idea how much he sounded like a ministry hack:
We must thus ask how many of the more than 1,300 previous volunteers in China may have been recruited by the MSS during their time there. The number is likely very small, but unlikely to be zero. How many of those volunteers then returned home to take up employment in the State Department or another U.S. government agency?
In January, I visited Fuling with my family, and one afternoon we went to the former campus. It had been abandoned after the expanded college opened, up the Yangtze. Last year, developers started tearing down the old campus in order to construct high-rise apartments.
The classroom building was already gone, but my former apartment still stood. The library was also intact, although its doors were chained shut and many windows were broken. In front of the ruined building, a faded red banner proclaimed another tone-deaf slogan:
While we were there, a man called out my Chinese name. He introduced himself as a former colleague who was also visiting the campus before it was demolished. Suddenly, I recognized him—in the old days, he sometimes came to my apartment late at night to borrow banned books. In front of the shuttered library, he said, “I remember reading about the Cultural Revolution.” I asked if the authorities had warned him about associating with the Americans, and he smiled shyly. “It wasn’t that direct,” he said. “But we were careful.”
I hadn’t known him or his colleagues as well as I knew our students. In my first book, I mentioned the surreptitious visits from the man and a few others. I described them as “shadowy figures who seemed to be groping for something that couldn’t be found in Fuling.”
Twenty years later, much remained in the shadows. I didn’t know what the teacher had gained from the banned books, or how my students were changed by our classes. But, as time passed, I was impressed by how much people remembered. “We were all poor at that time, we were eager to learn,” a student named Andi wrote recently, mentioning some school supplies that Adam had loaned her class. The accumulation of these small moments added up to something larger, but it wasn’t a formal accounting. That was a teacher’s confidence—confidence in his material, but also confidence in his students. They could make their own decisions about how they applied their lessons.
One evening, I spoke by telephone with Gabriel Exposito, a twenty-two-year-old who was among the last people to receive invitations to Peace Corps China. Exposito grew up in Havana, where one of his school memories involved a visit by a group of Americans. The children were instructed to avoid the foreigners, who made a donation that was spirited away by Communist officials. Exposito’s father eventually fled to Florida, where he found work as a nurse. He brought his son over from Cuba at the age of eleven. Exposito graduated cum laude from Florida State University, and when he applied to the Peace Corps he requested China.
“I know what a Communist education is like,” Exposito told me. “I was the student who wasn’t allowed to ask the hard questions. I saw the foreigners and couldn’t interact with them. I wanted to be on the other side of that.”
He was shocked to learn by tweet of the China program’s closure, and as a Floridian he called the offices of Senators Rubio and Scott to complain. He told staffers, “I agree with you—the Communist Party is a hostile entity. But we are breaking down the image they build of the American people.”
He requested a reassignment to a former Communist state, and the Peace Corps offered Mongolia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Moldova. Exposito chose Moldova. “I thought, This is a former Soviet republic that’s next to Ukraine,” he said. “It’s an area that’s often forgotten about.” He had started studying Russian, and he hoped to eventually become either a scholar or a diplomat; I wished him the best of luck. He would have been perfect for China 26. ♦
Published in the print edition of the March 16, 2020, issue, with the headline “Broken Bonds.”
Peter Hessler joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000. His most recent book is “The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution.”