By Daniel Schoolenberg (China 2013-15)
September 30, 2021
When the Peace Corps pulled out of China early last year, it marked the end of a 27-year program that existed only thanks to the efforts of high-level American and Chinese diplomats. Could the program — with its ideals of U.S.-China cooperation — ever be restored?
On August 31, 1988, a small group of American officials arrived in Beijing for talks with Chinese officials. They were treated like high-level diplomats: received with the utmost formality, treated to endless banquets, given the same villa that had hosted Nixon and Kissinger years before to conduct meetings. Led by Jon Keeton, the regional director for the Peace Corps’s Asia programs, the small delegation was tasked with negotiating the details of a Peace Corps program in China.
Keeton remembers the high ceilings, ornate pillars, the beautiful potted plants, and the grand chairs in which numerous Chinese ministry officials were seated across from them — and that the initial discussions they had were difficult. For years, Chinese propaganda had denigrated the Peace Corps, calling it a tool of imperialism and a front for the CIA in the developing world since its establishment in 1961. Now that these Chinese ministers were saddled with the task of negotiating the Peace Corps’s entry, they struggled to understand the organization, its mission, and what it wanted to do.
The turning point came when Keeton figured out how to communicate on their terms. He spoke of “the friends of China,” foreigners who had experience in China, many of them the children of missionaries. Where were they now?
“They’re dying,” he told them, and asked who might replace them. “Who would be the Americans who will understand China, love China, and go on to become diplomats and scholars?”
As the interpreter translated, Keeton watched as the expressions on the Chinese officials began to change. They were now looking at him with new interest.
From 1993 to January 2020, more than 1,400 volunteers would serve in China as Peace Corps English teachers. But under pressure from members of Congress and the Trump Administration, the Peace Corps announced in January 2020 its decision to begin phasing out its China program. The following month, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, all volunteers were flown out and the program was shuttered entirely.
Even as the Biden Administration continues many of the Trump-era policies on China, some hope that it may still be possible to at least re-establish the Peace Corps. In a New York Times op-ed in March, Ian Johnson argued that those are the kind of small steps that should be taken to salvage U.S.-China relations. Noting that the Peace Corps and Fulbright programs were “two key ways that Americans have learned about the country over the past decades,” Johnson argued that all their cancellations “hurt America’s ability to train a new generation of scholars and analysts.”
As a former Peace Corps China volunteer, I can’t help but agree. But it would be difficult if history is any indication. How did the Peace Corps China program come to exist, what did it symbolize in the course of U.S.-China relations, and, most importantly, could its ideals ever be resurrected?
The idea of having the Peace Corps in China was introduced just days after the normalization of U.S.-China relations was announced at the start of 1979. On January 10, Mary King, Deputy Director for ACTION, the federal agency which oversaw the Peace Corps at the time, met with officials from USAID to discuss the feasibility of a Peace Corps program in China. Together, they sketched out the broad contours of a Peace Corps program that could send English teachers to aid in China’s new reform and opening policy.
For the Peace Corps, the possibility of sending volunteers to a communist country — and China, of all places — was such an exciting prospect that, as King told me, “We barely even discussed the topic out loud for fear that we might spook its chances.” A few months later, Richard Celeste took over as Peace Corps director and quietly made getting into China one of his goals.
The first positive sign that China would be receptive to the idea came through a man named Jay Henderson. Henderson worked for the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR) as head of its education portfolio and frequently supervised groups of visiting Chinese teachers and official delegations. After meeting with Celeste, Henderson discussed the idea with Jiǎng Nánxiáng 蒋南翔, the head of the Ministry of Education, during a visit to the U.S. in June 1980. He reported back to the Peace Corps that Jiang and other officials were intrigued and eager to hear more.
Top diplomats working in China also advocated strongly on behalf of the Peace Corps. But Foreign Ministry officials tended to be more evasive. For example, when Stapleton Roy, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Beijing raised the idea to Han Xu, the Director-General for American & Oceania Affairs, he found Han hesitant. A former English teacher himself, Han would have understood the benefit of having the Peace Corps in China. But he explained the name “Peace Corps” had negative connotations, so that would have to change before it could seriously be considered.
Even though it was their own country’s propaganda that had rendered the Peace Corps name politically toxic, the Chinese would insist that the name had to be changed. The way Henderson got around it was to suggest, unofficially, that it go by different names in Chinese and English. He suggested that the Chinese name could even be something like Xiàndàihuà Duì 现代化队 — the “Modernization Corps” — a play on Dèng Xiǎopíng’s 邓小平 Four Modernizations campaign. As Henderson remembers, “The Chinese loved it!”
Another major advocate was Richard Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary for East Asia & Pacific and a big promoter of the Peace Corps. He came to Beijing in July for bilateral talks with Vice Foreign Minister Zhāng Wénjìn 章文晉, where he delivered the most direct pitch yet for having the Peace Corps volunteers in China, drawing on his own experience as Country Director for the Peace Corps in Morocco. Knowing that it would be a big decision requiring consultation between various ministries, Holbrooke offered to provide them with more information, which Zhang accepted.
Two weeks later, a team of Peace Corps officials quietly made their way to the Chinese embassy in Washington to give that information. It was led by Perdita Huston, head of Peace Corps’s Asia programs, Celeste’s assistant, and Darryl Johnson, a Foreign Service Officer from the China Desk named Darryl Johnson. They met with Li Baocheng, a mid-level diplomat. That was something Li said he could understand. During the Cultural Revolution, he said, many of the educated youth sent down to the countryside also had a hard time adjusting.
Celeste was still hopeful that the Chinese would make a request in the final months of the Carter Administration, but ultimately nothing materialized. It’s possible that the Chinese were just waiting to see what would happen in the upcoming election in November. From the campaign trail that summer, Ronald Reagan was suggesting that he might re-establish official ties with Taiwan, which would have ended up undoing the process of normalization. After he defeated Jimmy Carter in November, all bets were off; bilateral relations entered a period of a prolonged downturn.
The future of the Peace Corps seemed dismal as well. The Reagan Administration showed its regard for the organization by appointing a Republican heiress named Loret Ruppe as the new Peace Corps Director. She would end up staying in that position for the next eight years, and go down in history as the best director since Sargent Shriver. In some ways she picked up where Celeste left off, but she wouldn’t be as quiet. In March 1981, she gave a speech at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and publicly declared her intention to get into “the much-desired China.”
It wasn’t until 1984 that relations were roughly back to where they were when Reagan first took office. Ironically, a decision on the Peace Corps came during his re-election. In Beijing, the U.S. Embassy organized an election watch party at the Great Wall Hotel, rigging up a live news broadcast out of Hawaii to watch the election returns. It wasn’t much of a show, with Reagan winning in a landslide, but with the next four years of China policy assured, a Chinese official approached Darryl Johnson, who had been posted to the embassy several months before, and informed him they had been approved to begin discussing a Peace Corps program for China.
China’s decision eventually made its way to Ruppe, who made sure the Peace Corps would be made a priority in U.S. policy towards China over the next four years. She met with the new ambassador to China, Winston Lord, just before he left Washington for Beijing in October 1985. Though he didn’t know about it in detail, Lord thought the Peace Corps was a terrific way for Americans to get overseas experience, and he agreed to make the Peace Corps one of his goals as ambassador.
Lord delegated the task to Peter Tomsen, his deputy at the embassy and a former Peace Corps volunteer. Over the next three years, Tomsen negotiated intermittently with Liú Huáqiū 刘华秋, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of American & Oceania Affairs. Finally, in March 1988, China’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Wú Xuéqiān 吴学谦, visited the U.S. and gave a speech at the National Press Foundation, and formally announced that China had agreed “in principle” to accepting the Peace Corps.
Ruppe, who would later dispatch Keeton and his team to China to work out the details, delivered her own speech at the National Press Foundation just a few weeks after Wu’s. If the Chinese could accept the Peace Corps, she said, “let us have Peace Corps around our world doing the type of work that needs to be done for real peace.” The Peace Corps in China provided real benefit to both countries and had come to symbolize both Peace Corps’s revitalization and a high-point in U.S.-China relations.
After negotiating the program details, it was decided that the first group of volunteers would be a small group of highly-trained individuals. Initially, they would be sent to Sichuan province in the southwestern part of the country, where its remoteness might mean less political interference from Beijing. The choice was also meant to curry favor with Deng Xiaoping, who was Sichuanese. The Peace Corps also finally conceded to changing the name, agreeing to go by U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers (美中友好志愿者 měizhōng yǒuhǎo zhìyuànzhě) in China.
At the end of his tour, as one of his final acts as ambassador, and in lieu of a formal country agreement which would come later, Lord signed the exchange of letters which outlined the agreement for the Peace Corps in China. In his final cable to Washington, he referred to that signing as “the fruit of four years of strenuous effort. No fruit has tasted sweeter; few programs hold more potential for Sino-American friendship over the long-term.”
“The beginning is the hardest part”
George Bush took office as President in early 1989, and shortly thereafter paid a special visit to China’s leaders in Beijing. In the course of his meeting with Vice Premier Lǐ Péng 李鹏, Bush said he was glad to hear about the progress being made on bringing the Peace Corps to China. “The whole concept of teaching English in Sichuan is good,” President Bush said, and the program was “a good symbol of our improved relations.”
As one of China’s top conservatives, Li probably had his own reservations, but by then the decision to allow the Peace Corps into the country had been made, and so he responded positively, saying that China would respect the agreement. In the future, the program might even be allowed to expand, Li said. But then as a note of caution, he told the president: “The Chinese have a saying: The beginning is the hardest part.”
The Peace Corps forged ahead with plans to have volunteers in China by the end of August. Knowing the first group would face the greatest scrutiny, the Peace Corps was determined to select the best of the best. In April they invited a large group of applicants to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, evaluating them over the course of a week and selecting 23 of the most suitable individuals. By the end of May, the “China Ones,” as they were called, began their training at American University in Washington, D.C., enjoying one full week of classes before Li’s words proved prescient. On June 4, the Chinese government turned its guns and tanks on protesters on the outskirts of Tiananmen Square.
Horrified, protesters demonstrated against the Chinese government in cities around the world. Jon Keeton remembers standing on the sidewalk outside his home in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, watching as furious protesters marched down Connecticut Avenue toward the Chinese embassy. “I probably cried,” Keeton told me. “Because I knew that this was likely the end of our program.” Ultimately, he was right. On June 23, the Peace Corps was informed that the program would have to be postponed, and the China Ones sent elsewhere. But that decision was made by the Chinese, not the U.S.
James Lilley, the new U.S. ambassador to China, had come up with a host of measures the U.S. could take to condemn Beijing’s actions, which included postponing the arrival of Peace Corps volunteers. In a memo signed by Stapleton Roy to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, the State Department agreed with most of the measures, but not when it came to the Peace Corps, saying, “We would like to hold this powerful tool to bring change in China in reserve at present.”
Policymakers saw Tiananmen as a result of China’s exposure to the West, and the U.S. in particular. So sending the Peace Corps to China no longer symbolized how far relations had come, because good relations between the U.S. and China were no longer seen as good in itself, but rather as a way to sustain the changes taking place in Chinese society. As Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said two days after the crackdown, “The Peace Corps can be more important to China than it might have been even a few months ago.”
President Bush called China’s decision to postpone the Peace Corps program “too bad” at a press conference. “I would have liked to have seen those young volunteers go to China and help teach English to the Chinese,” he said. In secret trips in July and December, Scowcroft and his deputy Lawrence Eagleburger implored China’s leaders to make a good-faith effort to save the U.S.-China relationship and reverse its decision on the Peace Corps. It remained an issue in top-level meetings between American officials and their Chinese counterparts for the rest of Bush’s time in office.
Finally, after a four-year delay, in June 1993, the first group of Peace Corps trainees arrived in China. This was a positive step during a time of continued strain in bilateral relations, and in its first five years as a pilot program, numerous downturns could have spelled its end. But it proved to be resilient to even the most dramatic downturns, such as when the U.S. and China seemed to be on the brink of conflict over Taiwan in 1995, or when the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, touching off violent anti-American demonstrations across China.
The volunteers that arrived in China in the summer of 1998 were treated to a brief meeting and exchange of handshakes with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton at the American embassy in Beijing. The president was in Beijing for a major summit with Chinese leader Jiāng Zémín 江泽民, and the occasion served as an ideal time to sign a formal country agreement for the Peace Corps program, which Clinton called “an important step forward in building the bonds of friendship between the American and Chinese people.”
The Peace Corps expanded into Gansu and Guizhou, respectively, in 1999 and 2000. In the years following, its training program improved and the number of volunteers increased each year. And while China was not usually what people had in mind when they joined the Peace Corps, surveys regularly showed satisfaction rates higher than those reported in most other countries. Once set up, its operations were only interrupted twice, both times due to coronaviruses. The first time was in 2003, due to SARS; the second, COVID-19 emerging from Wuhan.
The program’s future in China
Is there any hope that the Peace Corps could return to China?
If it were ever suggested by someone in the Biden Administration, the surest opponent would be Senator Rick Scott. Having waged a public pressure campaign against the Peace Corps and its director, Jodi Olsen, to abolish the program, the Florida Senator attacked House Democrats in July 2019 when a budget resolution was passed that denied all federal funds to close the Peace Corps China program. In a public statement, Senator Scott said, “House Democrats want to kowtow to the Communist Party of China and send American volunteers and taxpayer dollars back to Communist China.”
For their part, the Chinese may not even accept a U.S. offer to restart the program, which is an opinion shared by Stapleton Roy. It had been their goal in the 1980s to get more Americans acquainted with China and produce foreign policy experts with real experience in the country, he explained, and at the same time, the Chinese had been desperate to learn English. But that’s not the case anymore. “So, therefore,” he said, “while I would like to see the Peace Corps get back into China in the current state of our relationship, I don’t think that’s where we should be putting our major attention.”
As both an institution and as an idea, the Peace Corps in China often reflected the ups and downs of the U.S.-China relationship. As unfortunate as it was, even its demise provides an accurate illustration of where the U.S. and China stand today. Even without going deep into the history of the program when it operated from 1993 to 2020, one can say that it lasted longer than anyone expected. Even Jon Keeton expressed surprise that the program persisted for nearly three decades.
The day after he broke the news to the China Ones that their plans were off, Keeton spent the next few years opening Peace Corps programs across the former Soviet Union. Not wanting to put himself in a position to second-guess the work of his successor, he barely kept up with the China program. But when he heard the program resumed, he said he was happy to know it followed what his team had negotiated years before.
Still, I can’t help but think that the argument Keeton made to Chinese officials back in 1988 remains true today. No matter how one sees China and its relationship with the U.S., either as a partner, ally, friend, adversary, or even enemy, there will need to be ways to cultivate relationships between Americans and Chinese and provide opportunities for people — including the many idealistic and talented individuals willing to serve the cause of peace and mutual understanding — to become the next generation of China experts.
Daniel Schoolenberg (China 2013-15) got his start in China by joining Peace Corps, serving for two years in Guizhou province where he taught English. Since then, he has continued to expand his knowledge of China by studying Chinese in Beijing and studying U.S.-China relations at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. He previously worked for the China-focused research and consultancy firm Trivium. At SupChina he assists in editing the daily newsletter and doing research for feature projects.