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Foreign Policy

Interview with Stephen Orlins

Jan 28 , 2019
  • James Chau

    Host, The China Current with James Chau


January 17, 2019



Stephen Orlins is President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations 

JAMES CHAU: You captivated the audience this morning at the Carter Center with your Chinese, and you made me sit up because you very self-deprecatingly described yourself as xiao tudou [小土豆] which of course in English means… 

STEPHEN ORLINS: Small potato. 

JC: You started life as a so-called “small potato” – though people who describe themselves as such never really are – in the legal department at the U.S. State Department. Tell me about life then and what brought you into contact with China? 

SO: It started with my family. My mother was an immigrant to the United States. My paternal grandparents were immigrants to the United States. I grew up in a family where we were taught that, but for the American government and the American people, we wouldn’t exist, we would have perished in Europe. They were European immigrants and Jewish immigrants, and they would have died under the Nazis, or in a Russian pogrom. My parents said that my brother, sister and I owed a debt of service to the American people, and I grew up thinking that I would go to West Point. But the war in Vietnam intervened and I decided that wasn’t the route I wanted to take – I was very anti-war – and instead, I ended up going to Harvard College. Then, on April 30th, 1970, President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, the extension of the American war in Vietnam to Cambodia. Harvard erupted in protest so terrible that the school ended up canceling classes. So, on the last day I was at Harvard, I went to a respected professor and said I wanted to understand why good people – the American government – do bad things like the war in Vietnam, and that I wanted to study Vietnamese. He said, “Steve, if you really want to understand Asia and what's going on, you should study Chinese”. He turned to go away, but then turned back, looked at me, and said, “By the way, if you want to study Chinese, I'll get you a fellowship. Come to my office tomorrow”. This entire conversation lasted less than 60 seconds. I went to his office the next day, filled out a form for a National Defense Foreign Language grant, which I was then given about three weeks later to start the study of Chinese. This less than 60-second conversation began a life-long relationship with China. When I graduated college, I decided to perfect my Chinese by going to Taiwan, where I only spoke Chinese for about 15 months. Then I went to Harvard Law School. When I graduated law school, I joined the U.S. State Department, who discovered after about a year that they had this Chinese speaking lawyer in the legal advisor’s office. I was then put on the team that was going to help establish diplomatic relations with China, which President Carter early-on decided we were going to do. I was put on a team where, interestingly, and why I call myself a xiao tudou, there were a lot of chiefs and very few Indians. So as one of the few Indians, I got to do things which for a 27, 28-year old, were truly extraordinary. 

JC: Why do you think your professor gave you the language of Chinese as a vista to understanding an entire continent? 

SO: Because the ancient history of Asia was substantially written in Chinese, and so he was giving me a platform to understand Asia, which turned out to be true. He also, by the way, added, “Maybe Chinese might be useful after this war is over” – which was incredibly prophetic!

JC: This was the early 1970’s? 

SO: It was 1970. April 30th was the invasion of Cambodia, a date I remember with incredible clarity because of the expansion of the war. And then May 1st was the conversation I had with the Harvard professor, Professor Woodside. 

JC: So almost exactly nine years after that conversation, almost an entire decade after your professor transformed your life, Deng Xiaoping went to the United States. When he met with Jimmy Carter in late January 1979, they talked about war, including Cambodia and Vietnam, and also China, Japan, and World War Two. They talked about it so that they would ensure that, in normalizing the Chinese relationship, they would not be responsible for any wars between them. Is that correct? 

SO: We forget over time that the original basis for the U.S.-China relationship was an anti-Soviet alliance. The existential threat to both China and the United States was the Soviet Union, and the reason Nixon opened in 1972 and then Carter established diplomatic relations on January 1st, 1979, was to cement the anti-Soviet alliance, which would in their view prevent war. 

JC: You’ve talked about the capacity of both governments to set things back on track. The relationship is at a very tricky stage, and surely we can't say it’s just about the current administration. What’s been the undercurrent that has brought these two countries from celebration, to the point where Jimmy Carter says a “modern Cold War” is not inconceivable? 

SO: Numerous factors: from changes in the U.S. which lead us to look for a cause for the problems here, to Chinese policies that have strengthened those in the United States who want to characterize the relationship as strategic rivals. It’s a combination of what both governments have done. What’s most troubling in this era is that it’s much deeper than governments. In the United States, academics, think-tanks, and businesses that formerly were supporters of constructive U.S.-China relations are not today. When Chinese students are denied visas, everyone- think tanks, academic institutions, the business community- should protest, because ultimately that decision is terrible for the United States. It’s not just bad for U.S.-China relations, it’s bad for America as the bright shining city on the hill of education. People are protesting, but it’s not in the strength and numbers you expect, because many Chinese policies have made those who formally supported constructive relations unhappy with China. 

JC: When you go out and speak to these communities, whether it be business, academic, or political, what do they say? 

SO: The business community, which was really the ballast for the U.S.-China relationship, is tired of hearing promises which are not implemented from China. You heard today talk about China's entry into the WTO and how 17 years later commitments are not fulfilled. You heard Craig Allen [President of the U.S.-China Business Council] talk about the government procurement agreement that they would adhere to as soon as possible. Seventeen years is not as soon as possible. It’s getting late. We hear many commitments which ultimately are not implemented. As an eternal optimist, somebody who's seen the changes that I've seen in 40 years, I still believe that a lot of the promises that are made will ultimately be implemented. But there's great frustration in the business community. That's reflected in them not taking as strong a stand as they would have on issues relating to the U.S.-China relationship. The crackdowns on education in China, denying visas to academics from the United States who have written negatively about China, the Chinese government at times trying to influence academic discussions in the United States, has all caused the U.S. academic community, which used to be so strong in its support, to become divided. There still are those who support constructive relations, but there are many who don't speak out. There are many who believe we should have reciprocal policies, where if the Chinese don't allow something, then the U.S. shouldn't allow something. If the U.S. government wants to set up “America corners” in different Chinese universities around China, they're not able to do that. But China has over 100 Confucius Institutes in the United States. So academics say, “Let’s have it be reciprocal, so if China doesn't allow America to do it, then America should prevent China from doing it”. American journalists believe that they are not treated well in China. If I had a dollar for every time an American journalist is invited to have tea with public security, I would have a lot more money than I do, because it's done far too often. The interference in foreign journalists’ work in China is substantial. So that’s led the U.S. government now to require CCTV and Xinhua to register as foreign agents. The risk is that these are then going to become reciprocal restrictions, which is extremely damaging. These U.S. communities, which formerly supported constructive engagement, aren't now. What I said about academics applies to think-tanks. They get tired of having conferences canceled. They get tired of having things they write in English translated into Chinese and not translated accurately. So, they are no longer as strong a supporter as they were. These policies are not good. They are not in China’s own interests. But what's lacking in the U.S. is putting those policies in context. Is China seeking to replace the United States as the world's leading power? The answer is, it’s really not. The Chinese government is interested in maintaining stability in China and maintaining their power, which does not mean replacing America as the number one power in the world. Chinese history, culture, and current problems dictate what they're going to do for the coming 50 years. But the problem is that the constituencies on both sides who were supporters before are not supporters today. 

JC: One of the hallmarks of the 40 years, bearing in mind everything that you just said, has been trust, far-sightedness, and the bravery and courage required to make historic decisions as these two men did in December 1978 and leading into January 1st, 1979. Are there the right people in positions of influence right now? And I'm not saying presidents, but communities who are able to do that. Is there the same incentive, if they feel discouraged as you said? 

SO: I always believe in the United States government. And I have believed for many years that we don't have sufficient China expertise at senior levels. You can go through the Chinese government and find people who have studied in the United States. They actually know the United States pretty well. Some of them talk to me in English, some of them talk to me in Chinese, but there is this experience. Except for Elaine Chao today, who in senior levels of the U.S. government really knows China? Elaine is Chinese, born in Taiwan, she speaks fluent Chinese, but her responsibility is not China. I felt that in the Obama administration too. [China’s Ambassador to the U.S.] Cui Tiankai can communicate to the American people in English and understands America extremely well. He becomes a force for constructive engagement. You have to go pretty far back to find the equivalent American in China who can speak to the Chinese people in Chinese and convey what is going on. 

JC: You said that you were noticed and hand-selected because of your linguistic abilities? 

SO: Well, there were no other Chinese-speaking lawyers in the United States government. 

JC: Do you think there are many more today? 

SO: No, I think not. 

JC: Some people would look and say that it is similar to how Chinese students have come to the United States in droves as the U.S. has opened up its educational gateway and allowed them to truly flourish, not only in their careers but also in their lives, but can the same been said of the reverse? 

SO: It’s much smaller. Whereas we have 350,000 Chinese students here in the United States, we have 20,000 American students in China. 

JC: And why is that? Is that due to lack of interest or a lack of openness? 

SO: The Chinese students are not coming here to work on U.S.-China relations. They’re coming here because we have the best university system in the world, and learning English for Chinese is fundamental to their existence. Whereas for an American, learning in Chinese is not fundamental. So, for them to go to China and study is often difficult. One program I've been associated with that has been fabulous in that regard is the Schwarzman Scholars program in Tsinghua University, which is bringing not only Americans but Brits, French, Japanese, and students from all over the world to China to study at Tsinghua for year. These are future leaders, and we will give them all the experience of having lived in China. They won't be China’s scholars, but they will at least have some knowledge of what has gone on, similar to the Rhodes Scholarship in England, which has been around for 100 years. The Americans that have gone there and have understood the UK, and have come back to the United States in leadership positions has been fantastic. 

JC: I want to end on an optimistic note, because optimism must be a necessary emotion in order to find a way forward. You've talked about being deeply troubled by the current course, but let’s take the long-term view of this. You started off by talking about war and conflict. There have been no battlefield in which American soldiers have lost their lives in East Asia since the normalization of the U.S.-China relationship in 1979. What foundation does that give us going forward, and how should we apply it for other issues? 

SO: We’ve lost sight in the United States of how tumultuous Asia was up until 1979, and the number of deaths of Americans. None of the people attacking the establishment of diplomatic relations, attacking the policy of engagement that the United States has had, point out that Americans stopped dying. That's a huge deal. I went to Asia in ’72 when Americans were dying by the day in Vietnam. The cost of demonization of China is not fully recognized in the U.S., and the cost of the kind of policies that China is following towards the United States are not fully recognized in China. The reason I talk so much about climate change is that I was flooded out of my home during Superstorm Sandy, and I saw what climate change did to New York City. I see that Shanghai sits on the banks of the Yangtze River, and not very much above it. Climate change is going to have a devastating effect, and there will be some incident that's going to require governments to get together. The same is true of pandemics, whether it’s a new SARS or a new Ebola or something else. There’s going to be an event which requires the United States and China to work together. You can’t predict what it's going to be, but it's going to come. Or there will be a terrorist incident that requires joint cooperation, or the economic crisis will deteriorate so much that the people in the United States or in China will recognize that we need to cooperate. Ultimately, this demonization is not coming from the majority of Americans and it's not from the majority of Chinese. It's a small group that believes that this is in the national interest. I believe it is fundamentally wrong. I take the New York subway every day, and I watch how it doesn't work. It doesn’t work anymore because we as a country, we as citizens of New York City, of New York state, have failed to invest. And that in part is because we spend $700 billion on military expenditures which have no benefit to the infrastructure of society. People are going to recognize that, and they're going to ultimately tell the government that we can't go down this path, we need to go down a path of cooperation. That will happen one day. I can't tell you if it's going to happen next month or next year, but I'm sure it will happen. Having worked on people-to-people exchanges between the United States and China since the Committee hosted the Chinese ping pong team in 1972, we know that those bonds are strong and they're going to pull the two countries together. So that’s why in the end I'm an optimist. 

JC: I hope that, when you talk about sharing data on a health pandemic, or reversing the effects of the trade war, or addressing terrorism or climate change, that it won't be too late when this realization happens? 

SO: Sadly, I think it will require a crisis to pull us back together. Right now, it’s very tough to persuade people that this confrontation has enormous cost to society. I was reading the National Defense Strategy when I was on the subway, and I looked around at the people around me, and it saddened me because these people, who are just going to their everyday jobs, are paying the price for this bad strategy, they just don’t know it. 

James Chau: Steve Orlins, thank you very much for putting this into a context of people, and the struggles that many face today.

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