The New Yorker March 16, 2020 pp34-41 Letter from Fuling “Broken Bonds” “The Peace Corps exits China, ending a cultural tie” By Peter Hessler
In China since 1993, hardline Chinese and two United States Senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, celebrated the sudden departure of the Peace Corp in Year 27 (2020).
The Peace Corps’s mission since its inception in 1961 (JFK) has been three-fold; provide useful assistance to ‘interested countries’, improve the understanding of America, and help Americans understand the rest of the world. It has always, until now, “been viewed as removed from political spats” receiving no direction from that State Department or other federal agencies. Nonetheless, some Chinese leaders “described the Peace Corps's ‘ideological and culture 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….”The Peace Corps has departed and the U.S.-China Trade Agreement is here, very good, very good. Both events are worth celebrating”.
Over twenty-seven years, China has changed dramatically from being largely rural to more urban now and with only 8% of Chinese youth attending college to almost 50% today. Earlier, Chinese reformers welcomed the Peace Corps but others were against placing American volunteers in rural areas like Fuling. Students, locals and local academics mostly were “thrilled” to have these “U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers” even though Mao era beliefs cast doubts. Those opposed were mostly at the regional or national level.
For young Americans, it was an inexpensive way to see the world, to practice teaching, be journalists or writers and many “became diplomats, civil servants, businesspeople or scholars specializing in China.”
In 1996, China was trailing internet and other technological capabilities but as these areas developed and education evolved the Chinese started enforcing the “idea that education and restriction could proceed in tandem”.
In 2014, Peace Corps volunteers were allowed to state their preferred countries and China became a “coveted assignment”. The Peace Corps also felt China was a top priority and…"directed that the people who had the most skills should go to China”. By 2017, the Chinese made operating in China more difficult for NGOs but not for the Peace Corps.
2018, of course, was the start of the Trump administration and by the Summer of 2019 “Rick Scott began demanding an end to Peace Corps China.” According to Scott, despite a paltry budget of $4,800,000, “What the Peace Corps shouldn’t be doing is propping up our adversaries with U.S. tax dollars”. Interestingly, as Florida’s governor from 2011-2019, 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”. Scott’s blind trust “included stocks with ties to Chinese companies”.
Once Scott became a U.S. Senator “he became a vocal opponent of China”. He wanted to understand the ROI of the Peace Corps in China. The Peace Corps were starting to be part of the growing anti-China sentiment and by December 2019, after a National Security Council meeting, the Peace Corps mission to China was closed and announced to the Peace Corps team in China on January 19.
The party line was that China “would be graduating”-it was now so developed that it no longer needed the Peace Corps”. “Eleven days later, the coronavirus caused the evacuation of all China volunteers”. Note that volunteers were evacuated with SARs but returned after that.
Scott, for his part, never researched the benefits of having the Peace Corps in China. Some reportedly claim that the Trump administration threatened to cut the Peace Corps overall budget if the China program wasn’t ended.