The Peace Corps Cuts and Runs

The link to my piece on Peace Corps’ sudden and silent exit from China is in the Wall Street Journal here. Because it’s behind a paywall, the text follows:

The Peace Corps Cuts and Runs
Amid fanfare at the White House, the U.S. and China signed an agreement pausing the trade war. The next day, the U.S. quietly terminated its Peace Corps program in China. The news didn’t merit a presidential tweet, or even a Peace Corps press release. An explanation is in order, because the program is one of the greatest diplomatic success stories in the history of both the Peace Corps and U.S.-China relations.
The program began in 1993, delayed a few years because of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Mao Zedong had slandered the Peace Corps as a tool of American imperialism, so his more pragmatic successors changed its name. I arrived as a U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer in 1995, part of the second group of American volunteers, assigned to teach English to undergraduate teacher-trainees in southwest China. I was the first foreigner these teenagers had ever seen, and my Chinese handler sternly commanded me to teach them about the Bible, the stock market, the Beatles and American literature. I became fluent in Chinese, remained in China for more than a decade as a writer, and now teach Chinese nonfiction to American undergraduates.
Most of my Peace Corps college students returned to their villages to teach English to elementary students. I cannot swear that none of the kids I taught grew up to be Huawei executives, soybean traders or Xinjiang concentration-camp guards, but if they have, they hide it well, under the cover of WeChat threads about their children, their students and the soaring price of pork.
But maybe Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott know better. It was Mr. Rubio who broke the news of the program’s termination on his website. “For too long,” he wrote, “Beijing has fooled organizations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization into believing otherwise so it could exploit our global institutions.”
Mr. Scott put the China program in his crosshairs last July, when he introduced the Peace Corps Mission Accountability Act, which would terminate operations in China and other “hostile” countries. His reaction to the withdrawal: “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.”
When the program pulled out of Russia after 11 years in 2003, it issued a statement praising the 700 volunteers who had served there over those years. So far the Peace Corps has said nothing about the more than 1,300 volunteers who have served in China since 1993.
They represent America and its values in a country that controls the information its citizens receive. They maintain the steady daily habits of being engaged, learning the language and helping out in communities whose own national government falters. Is there a better or more cost-effective form of public diplomacy?
The Peace Corps isn’t a perfect agency, and it shouldn’t be shielded from criticism or change. But neither should the Peace Corps turn tail from China because two senators don’t understand its mission there. Instead, its director, Jody Olsen, should explain why she’s informed Congress of the China program’s termination, and how this serves the agency’s objectives.
Who knows, maybe Ms. Olsen has a card up her sleeve. A Peace Corps program in Vietnam has long been planned, but why stop there? Cuba is much closer.
Mr. Meyer is author of “The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up.”


The Ugly American

In light of the Peace Corps’ (very quiet) decision to terminate its China program, here’s a New York Times piece I wrote a few years ago recalling the 1958 novel The Ugly American, and how John F. Kennedy sent copies of the book to all of his Senate colleagues. As president, Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, based largely on the authors’ recommendation. The China program cost $4.1 million in 2019, a little over 1 percent of Peace Corps’ total budget. The United States spends $300 million annually on its military bands.

Lowell Thomas Award

The Road to Sleeping Dragon won a silver medal for Best Travel Book in the 2017-18 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award competition. This is my third Lowell Thomas, awarded by the Society of American Travel Writers, judged by faculty of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, and handed out at a ceremony in Barbados. (I did not go to Barbados.) “Sent to a tiny village in China by the Peace Corps in the 1990s,” the judges said, “the writer learns much more than the language. He learns, and we learn, that humanity crosses all borders. The final book in a trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon,  contains more observation and reflection as he considers the mantra offered him while living in China: Go slowly, eat slowly, look slowly.”