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Interview with Governor Bob Holden

January 17, 2019, Atlanta


Bob Holden is President of the United States Heartland China Association, and served as 53rd Governor of Missouri.

JAMES CHAU: Governor Holden, when I look at your biography, there are obvious parallels between you and President Carter. Of course, you’re both Democrats, but there are less obvious similarities. You both grew up on family-owned farms, and you went to a one-room school. Tell me a bit about your life growing up?

GOVERNOR HOLDEN: Well, interestingly, my dad left the farm, went to Kansas City, met a young lady, and they married and moved back. She was from the Big City and my dad was from this rural area. But the one thing that they wanted more than anything else was for their children to get a college education, because my father was not afforded that opportunity. They didn’t tell us what to do or where to go, but they wanted their kids to get a college education. That was the motivation behind me working to achieve those dreams for me and my family, and I’ve tried to expand that to help all children in my region of the country to fulfill those dreams, too.

JC: Jimmy Carter’s early connection towards China came from church missionaries building education facilities in China, and he donated a nickel a week towards that very noble cause. What was your first interaction with China? What interests someone who grew up in the Midwest about China?

GH: When I was State Treasurer of Missouri from 1992 to 2000, I watched the automotive industry largely leave the Midwest and go to the Southeast. I started thinking how, if we can't hold onto that, what is the next best opportunity? I don'’ think you can reestablish relationships that you’ve lost, and it's better to find new opportunities to pursue. I saw that as China. So when I was elected Governor of Missouri, I made it my commitment to try to build that relationship. As Chairman of the Midwest Governors Association, I started talking to them about taking a regional approach in dealing with our economy so that we could go global in our activities. And that's what we did. My first visit to Peking University in 2004 was to make the announcement of setting up offices in China. It also happened to be during our youngest son's birthday. I always try to visit a school when I travel overseas, and the teacher there had heard about his birthday. At the end of my comments she said the students had a gift for my son. And one by one, each one of those students came forward and gave him a small birthday gift. That personal connection and relationship has helped instill in me the commitment to develop the relationship and expand it throughout the heartland. My background is not unique in our region of the country. The families in our 20-state region want their children to do better, and they want their children hopefully to stay close to home. But we've got to give them opportunities for that to occur.

JC: I want to go back a bit to the story you just recounted. My father, whenever he traveled, would always make a point of visiting a local supermarket because he said the availability, or non-availability, of fresh produce or processed foods helps to quickly understand the socio-economic conditions of that particular area. What makes you want to visit a school wherever you travel, particularly in China, where the language is different, where the cultures are different?

GH: Education is the one equalizer. If you receive a good education, you can go in many different directions and be successful. But without education, particularly as our culture and our globe is becoming more and more globalized and technology-driven, if you don't have skillsets, it's going to be hard for you or your family to be that successful.

JC: The educational exchanges established by President Carter and Deng Xiaoping between
China and United States have benefited so many students of both countries, particularly those that came from China at a very difficult time in the late 1970’s. But all that seems to be questioned these days. What once was welcomed is now seen as a threat. Is that because the Chinese have improved so much in such a short period of time, or are we misreading this from both sides?

GH: Any culture that feels it is under threat from loss of influence tries to figure out why. Usually the initial reaction is that someone from the outside is coming in and trying to take what you have. But we can be competitive. What we've got to do is improve and globalize our educational system and our student bodies, so that our young people can get to know each other as 18-year olds, 19-year olds and 20-year olds – not try to build relationships when they’re 60 years old. The families I’ve met in China carry the same aspirations for their children as the families in our country. We may approach it differently, but you get the same result.

JC: How big is language as a barrier? Does it create misunderstandings in this context?

GH: It can, But the good thing is that technology is a common language, and can help equalize and open up lines of communication between two different cultures.

JC: Let’s talk about your contributions to the U.S.-China relationship. You were Governor of Missouri for a number of years. Missouri is a state that holds all this richness in terms of rice, beef, soybeans, pork, dairy products. hay, corn, poultry, sorghum, and so forth. And while you were Governor, you committed and delivered on your commitments to build those relationships with China. You also mentioned opening up your state's first office in China, but also you opened the first Confucius Institute in the state. You've always talked about “get to the local first.” What does that mean?

GH: If you look at the history of our country, change comes about from the bottom-up, not the top-down. So, what we're trying to do is help build that change from the bottom-up in dealing with China and anybody else. But China is a main focus of our efforts. The families I've met in China carry the same aspirations for their children as the families in our country. They want their children to be healthy. They want their children to be successful. They want their children to aspire to a higher calling than they have had. When you meet people like that in both cultures and they can link up together, and they have the same aspirations for their children and cultures, then you've set a foundation for long-term joint efforts and economic success.

JC: There’s a parallel to your own story, where you were the first to be able to benefit from a college education. That comes down to the American Dream. Is it hard for Americans to understand that other people want to dream as well? Are there different kinds of dreams?

GH: In some cases, yes. But at the fundamental level, the families from both cultures have the same dream for their children. We may approach it differently, but you get the same result. I'll never forget, I was in a city in China about five or six years ago, and the young lady who was cleaning our hotel room spoke very good English. I asked her when she had been to the United States, and she said she had never been to the United States. I asked how she picked up the diction, and she said by watching British and American movies and shows. So that aspiration for success is instilled in every child if given the opportunity. And what we’re trying to do, with the United States Heartland China Association, is build those bridges so that our young people in both cultures can see an advantage of working together, and not see a competitor that's going to be working against them.

JC: The United States Heartland China Association is nonpartisan, and it unites a number of states that have a vested interest in a good relationship with China. You’re obviously a people person in the way that you approach policy, but also in your own manner. What have people been coming forward to tell you, Governor?

GH: The people in the heartland know that they've got to change. They just don’t want to see that change take away their children to another part of the country or another part of the world. What we’re offering is an opportunity to make those changes, but also keep that change within our own territory. If you and your children want to stay where you are, that’s fine, you don’t have to move to have a better life. We give them hope and a path for how their dreams can also match up with the economic demands of our culture.

JC: I know that you're sitting here wearing a blue tie, but how many blue ties and how many red ties are there in the Heartland Association? If we did a tally, what would we come up with?

GH: If you're doing that tally 10 or 15 years ago, it would be probably 75 percent blue. If you do it today, it's probably 75 percent red. Some of my best personal friends involved with the Republican Party, both in elected office and as business people. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you’re going to have, and you can find, common ground if you look for it. I’m committed to doing all this in a bipartisan way, and also working to make sure that we have a win-win situation with China and the United States, because when one side feels like they’re being cheated, then that doesn't bode well for long-term relations, but if both see that opportunity for success and growth, then they’ll work together for decades, if not generations.

JC: Would your ‘red tie’ friends necessarily see the challenges they face now in terms of their business and industry in agriculture, and link that to what's happening politically and to the direction that the Republican Party is taking? Or do they see this is as a China issue affecting all Americans?

GH: That’s the reason I think the work in education is so very, very important, because someone that is typically like me – 50, 60, 70 years old – their value system, whether you like it or not, is pretty well set. But people that are 16, 17, 18, and 20 years old, they’re still trying to figure out what value system they want to accept and be a part of. That’s the reason education and a collaborative effort with educational institutions is so very important, because at that level you open up a way for change to occur and success to be made. When you can do that, then people are willing to accept that and be a part of it.

JC: I just want to finish up with two quick questions. The first would be, what would you tell your constituents, but also people who don't live in the Midwest, people who live far beyond and who don't necessarily share your ideas and your ideals, about what China is and who the Chinese are?

GH: I would tell them that the people I’ve met in China love their children and want their children to be as successful as we want our children to be. If you come at it from that perspective, then you figure out how those two families, so to speak, can work together for the mutual benefit of both children. When you have a win-win situation, then you have the makings of a long-term relationship that will be very successful for both. That's why we’ve got to be very committed, but we only want to work with people that are truly committed to that philosophical point of view. You’re going to find in our culture and China’s culture some people that may not be at the same reputation or standing. Those are not the people I want to do business with. I want the best of both to connect with each other, and in that way, we can really improve the opportunities for all.

JC: Finally, I think it’s fair to ask the reverse: You come from a state of great communicators – Harry Truman, Walt Disney, Mark Twain – people who can really tell a story and convey it across lines. What would you tell the Chinese about telling their own story better?

GH: I think the best way to tell that story is by working to help their young people become connected with education and cultural activities in our culture, because when you build that personal connector, then you can build the business relationship. By and large, business relationships don’t last long if they don't have the personal connection bounding them as they move forward.

GH: Governor Holden, thank you very much.

GH: Well, thank you, I’m delighted. This is a cause and a belief and a passion that I have because it comes from the same passion that my parents instilled in me to allow me to do the things I’ve done in life. I just want to open that opportunity for young people in China and young people in the United States so they, too, can see the benefit of those relationships.

About "At Large Podcast"

At Large is a new podcast series brought to you by China-US Focus, and presented and produced by writer and broadcaster James Chau. Each week, he unpacks the complex stories shaping China and the United States, covering major events shaping their relationship from technology to trade, and security to foreign policy. At Large is a unique podcast at a unique time in history. Subscribe to 'At Large Podcast' on Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play Music and Stitcher or listen via our website.
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