Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Steven Saum (Ukraine 1994-96)
by Reed Piercey (China 2019-2020)
July 23, 2020 12:00 AM
This month’s proposed State Department funding bill devotes less than two of its 326 pages to the Peace Corps. It does, however, contain a brief but significant provision: “None of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts under this heading may be used to permanently close the United States-China Friendship Volunteer Program.”
Never mind that the U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers, another name for the Peace Corps’s China program, has already been closed down. To anyone reading Tom Rogan’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, this sentence is made out to be an attempt by House Democrats to weaken American national security. In fact, the Peace Corps’s presence there advanced our country’s interests, values, and security in a number of crucial ways.
As Peace Corps staff and volunteers have long known, the program nurtured genuine and positive relationships between American volunteers and their students, helped spread nuanced firsthand knowledge of the U.S. to contradict one-dimensional narratives pushed by the Chinese government, and created a deeper personal understanding of the Chinese language and culture on the part of volunteers. Many of our volunteers, including me, aspire to put that knowledge to use in formulating U.S.-China policy.
I was part of Peace Corps China’s 25th and final cohort of volunteers — the last group trained and placed at universities across western China before the program was ended last winter. From August 2019 to January 2020, I taught English at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, a city of about 30 million people. My site was a bit of an anomaly — the city highly developed, the university well-regarded, and most students good enough with English to conduct abstract conversations and discuss their lives. Their curiosity was insatiable. I taught a content-based class focused mostly on speech and debate. The diversity of students’ viewpoints was striking, especially because China is often seen as a monolith in the U.S.
The final exam I assigned consisted of a 5-minute speech. Topics I gave students to choose from included some that were controversial, such as the representation of homosexuality in the media, which is essentially forbidden in China, criminal justice, and gendered wage disparities. As long as their speeches were persuasive, they were free to make any argument they wanted. I expected many to take relatively conservative stances. Instead, I watched my students deliver passionate speeches about the value of seeing gay and lesbian couples represented in popular media, the dangers of inhumane work schedules, the importance of gender equality, and the need to help reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society.
One of my biggest takeaways from my time in China was that it is a mistake to conflate the Chinese government with the Chinese people. There is much variety of opinion, and, as I discovered, more of those opinions align with our own values than we think. Granted, many of those opinions cannot be expressed openly. However, anyone who takes the time to get to know people who actually live in China will see that there is just as much depth and complexity to the Chinese population as there is to ours. This may seem like an obvious statement, but many contributors to the American discourse on China seem to overlook that fact.
The work we did in China was undoubtedly different from many other Peace Corps programs. Its real value lies in the window it opened between the American and Chinese people. We were never told what to teach. Aside from certain political issues identified as off-limits in class, we had the freedom to interact with our students as we saw fit. Some students willingly brought up those topics in private. A member of Peace Corps China’s senior staff once told me that in her conversations with a Chinese government representative who worked with our program, the official referred to the work we were doing as “planting seeds.” I was struck by that statement and its implications.
At a time when many believe the U.S and China are sliding toward inevitable conflict, Peace Corps China’s work should have grown in importance. Instead, our government made the counterproductive decision to shut down the program. That decision hurt U.S. interests most of all. But luckily, such mistakes need not be permanent.
Reed Piercey served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2019 to 2020 during the Trump administration and is an incoming student at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.