Michael Meyer On The End of The Peace Corps Program In China

Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction books The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed and In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China. He first arrived in China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade contributed from there to The New York Times, Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets. He the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, MacDowell, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He has taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar fellowship, and Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches nonfiction writing. The final book in his China trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. Currently a Fulbright scholar to Taiwan, Meyer’s next book, Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity, will be published by Mariner/HarperCollins in April 2022.

Jonathan Becker CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Michael Meyer on November 1, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Michael Meyer.

What was it like when you first went to China in the mid-1990s as a member of the Peace Corps? How did that experience affect you and your view of China?

We were very much an experiment because even though the first group was supposed to go in 1989 and went through training in Washington DC, the program got cancelled after the Tiananmen Square incident. Because of that, the next group didn't arrive until 1993. And usually the Peace Corps comes every year, but that 1993 group stayed until 1995, meaning my group was the second group. Before I went, I was a Spanish teacher. I had volunteered with United Farmworkers before, and I thought Peace Corps was going to send me to Central America. Then they called me and gave me a series of choices: you're going to Vladivostok or Tunisia or Sri Lanka or Mongolia. I kept saying no to every option. They eventually said "This is not Club Med. It's the Peace Corps. You don't get to choose." After that, I told them that I didn't want to go. A couple of weeks later, they called again, and they said China, and I thought they were joking. I said, "I didn't know Peace Corps was in China." They said, "Well, we're not really Peace Corps, we are the US China friendship volunteers." (It got renamed for suspicion of spying in the 60s and 70s.) Something I realized when I first got on the plane and throughout the program was that this was very much a ragtag group of people. We were not the best and the brightest. Out of us, only one person spoke Mandarin: a Chinese-American spoke it, and some others had been in Taiwan for a short amount of time. When we landed in Sichuan, at the time it was still just dirt roads, very backwards, or luohou, as the Chinese would say. But it wasn't backward, it was just not as developed as Beijing or Shanghai, obviously. When we got there, there was a real sense of culture shock among the 15 volunteers that were there. In fact, seven of them left rather quickly, and another one left within the first year and so our group was halved. I didn't feel that culture shock because I grew up in rural Minnesota. A teacher is a teacher around the world. You can find a teacher from Ghana or a teacher from Moscow, and they're probably going to get along. So, for me as an education major and someone who picked up languages quickly, it didn't feel like culture shock to me. If anything, it felt like this massive release and relief to be out of classrooms in the states where there was so much discipline and so much remedial instruction. To be in Sichuan in 1995 at that moment was to see blossoming (kaihua) and  enlightenment (kaiqiao), like the blossoming of youth culture and independent culture along with the end of the iron rice bowl system and the erosion of the danwei (Communist work unit) system. I stepped into a gorgeous countryside with the best food in the world, into classrooms filled with students who were elated to see me. That was really exciting. And I felt very lucky to get there at the time I did. I didn't have a computer. I had a manual typewriter. I didn't have a photocopier. I didn't have any textbooks. All I had was a piece of chalk, and there were obviously no cellphones. That made me connect on a very personal and very basic level with my students. As a teacher you want nothing more than that. It was a great laboratory to learn Chinese and to learn how to teach English to Chinese students. 

What sorts of changes did you see within China during the program and when you were spending time in China afterwards?

During the program the big change was that there was very much a sense that they didn't know what to do with us. I was by myself out in nature, and there was another volunteer with me, but he left after the first year, and so I was pretty much on my own for much of that first year. And one thing that changed was that there was initially this suspicion of, "Why are you here?" Secondly, "What sort of nation sends its young people overseas to work with strangers? You should be with your own community and with your own neighborhood doing things?" Third, "You're not getting a salary?" My salary at the time was 800 yuan a month, when the local professors were making around the same. As a result, it was a mystifying thing to have us there, and the people I met were often asking "Why are you doing this? What are you really doing here?" As a result, the biggest change on a personal level was deeper and deeper immersion and gradual acceptance among the faculty and students. Beyond the campus, though, the biggest change that was happening was my students were the first group of paid tuition students, so they weren't assigned to a job. What that meant was they had a different relationship with their coursework because they wanted to get something out of it. Instead of "Get me out of here" it was "I must do these courses because I need to learn how to write a resume in English or conduct an interview in English because I want to go to Shenzhen, or I want to go work for a hotel in Chengdu. I want to use my language." It was exciting to be part of that because I was 23 years old. My students were 21 or 22. We were about the same age obviously, but we were also crossing the river feeling for stones together. It wasn't like now when I teach my students and their parents are much wealthier than I will ever be. As a teacher, one of the most exciting environments to be in is one in which your students take nothing for granted. "Why does the story start this way? Why is that now in the right now and there? Why is that the decorum or the culture of an interview?" It's exciting to be part of that teaching. And while I had to figure out how to register to get a phone in my apartment, they were figuring out how to register to get a phone. Just as I was trying to figure out how to get a driver's license, they were figuring out how to get a driver's license. We were sort of growing alongside one another, and that's unique for a Peace Corps program.

On a broader structural level, in what ways do you think that the Peace Corps program in China was effective in attaining its goals and off your experience what do you think were some problems with it?

I went into Peace Corps sort of moon-eyed thinking that it was going to be a lot like my experience volunteering with the Urban League in America as a teacher or with United Farmworkers on the border of Texas. I thought I was going to be doing more development work. But I quickly realized like a lot of Peace Corps volunteers do that an equal benefit (if not a bigger benefit) is what you bring back to the United States. That's one of the saddest parts about the demise of the program. The Peace Corps in China or Peace Corps in any country is essentially training the next generation of so-called experts because a lot of Peace Corps volunteers do go on to work in the State Department. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers do go on to graduate school and specialize in the country in which they lived. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers do go on to Teachers College and other programs to get teaching licenses. So, one key thing that it was very successful at was getting young Americans into China, and the program had changed a lot when I spoke at the 20th anniversary of the group. It was a non-white majority group of volunteers, as opposed to when I was there when it was majority white. And while we had one heterosexual married couple, we had a same sex married couple in the 20-year group. This is great because the Peace Corps volunteers who were going to China by that point were much more reflective of what American society looks like. The other thing that was happening by the 20-year mark was the Peace Corps was allowing people to choose which country they wanted to go to, so you weren't getting the people who said no to Mongolia like me. You were getting people who were studying Chinese as undergrads, who had Chinese families, who had been to China, and so forth. Because these volunteers had a much deeper connection to the country, they really hit the ground running more. The newer groups were also living with families during their training, but when I was there, they were still figuring out what to do with us, so we stayed in a separate hotel on campus and did our language training. By the 20th group they were living with families over the summer and immersing themselves in that way too. So, all those things were successful in terms of putting bright, young, energetic diplomats into Sichuan and Gansu and I think they were even up in Shanghai at the end there. That aspect was great. What it didn't do very well was the same as any international NGO working in China, which is judging how far you can push the boundaries. Was there something the Peace Corps could have been doing beyond language training? When I was there, a lot of people were quite frustrated at the limitations of the program. The American Council Consul General was a former Peace Corps Thailand volunteer and joked "What you're really doing here is you're creating the next generation of Pepsi customers." But we weren't getting Peace Corps to work in civil society organizations. Towards the end, it was doing some AIDS research, AIDS education, and safe sex education. There were also some groups working with women's groups locally, but you weren't getting the lawyers working with pre-law students on judicial reform or something like that. You weren't getting businesspeople going in and working with young entrepreneurs and pushing the system that way. That was a limitation, and it would have been nicer to see them push the boundaries on that. I'm sure they tried, frankly, but it wasn't effective on the ground level.

What was your reaction to hearing that the Peace Corps program was ending last year and what kind of shifts in American views on China do you think resulted in the program being disbanded?

My first reaction was "What a waste!" I can't think of any better return on American tax dollar investments than the Peace Corps when it comes to diplomacy. And it's such a shame because if you have a group of 25 or 30, or even up to 40 people who want to go live in a country and become fluent in the language, and be a face of American culture and society and politics on the ground, why wouldn't you allow that to keep going on? I wrote an op-ed about this for the Wall Street Journal when this decision was announced last January and within a day or two Senator Rick Scott of Florida wrote a rebuttal. My letter was saying that I really doubt that Peace Corps students go on to man internment camps in Xinjiang or oppress monks in Tibet. I don't think we're at that level. In fact, if you look at the record, a lot of American police departments and American businesses do that sort of training or have had those sorts of interactions, like security firms selling equipment to China, American police departments with exchange programs, training people in crowd control and riot control and so forth. So those sorts of exchanges do exist, but I don't think putting someone in a teacher's college teaching basic English skills is really enabling a dictatorship, and I am quite clear-eyed on China. I've written three books and over 100 articles about the place--I know it quite well. I don't think the Peace Corps was a political tool of the Chinese Communist Party, but it was a very effective diplomatic tool for the United States government. I always defer back to something that an activist told me once what I when I work with United Farmworkers that some things are too important to be left to politicians. Peer to peer exchanges between two superpowers who play such an outsized role in geopolitical affairs are very important to continue. There's a common sentiment right now among many "China Hounds" pushing to just cut ties with China, and they're making a good profit writing articles with scare tactics about how America should have nothing to do with China. The other side of that spectrum is academics and businesspeople and lawyers who I respect who say the fact that China doesn't want to be studied right now or reported on right now is all the more reason to be pushing hard to study it and report on it. It's very short-sighted to say we should pull the program when it's in our interest to have it there. I wish we had Peace Corps Cuba. I'll be interested if my son one day can do Peace Corps North Korea or Peace Corps United Korea. The very fact that the Peace Corps has opened in Vietnam says a ton, and the Peace Corps is trying to open in Myanmar/Burma. We need more Peace Corps programs around the world, not less.

Do you think that the fears behind the American political backlash against Peace Corps are valid? 

In a vacuum it is correct to question which governments we are dealing with, sending aid to, and sending aid workers to (which I guess the Peace Corps would officially be classified as). On the other hand, it's incredibly short sighted to suddenly decide that we're going to have this generation gap now of people who have had experience in Mainland China who go on to work in diplomatic organs like the State Department or to teach at universities or to contribute to journalism. Peace Corps China has an outsized record of people that went on to write books and report from China for major organizations. And so, it's very one-sided to say that Peace Corps in China was only benefiting the Chinese. That’s not true at all. If anything, it benefited the American side much more. America has a rather stellar record of getting involved in foreign countries and getting involved in wars but a much poorer record at understanding the people for whom we're fighting or the people we are fighting against. This is something I really admire about writers such as Rory Stewart, who wrote "The Places in Between" when he walked across Afghanistan, or Paul Theroux, a former Peace Corps volunteer who writes about countries, especially in in sub-Saharan Africa. It would be nice to have an entire shelf of books and an entire Rolodex of leaders and businesspeople to contact if you want to know what's what on the ground. In China, the Peace Corps was training this whole generation to be those people. Now I'm setting off for Taiwan on a Fulbright Fellowship because I realized there's a huge gap on the Taiwan bookshelf. There isn't really a Taiwan bookshelf. One of the reasons for that is for the last 20 years, Mainland China was this dark star that was pulling in Peace Corps and Fulbright and all the language students were going there, all the correspondents wanted to be there. To suddenly be pulling out of that is shooting ourselves in our own feet in a way because by the year 2040, I'm curious who's going to be China's interpreters. Who's going to be that next generation of China hands? It worries me that there's going to be this this gap on the shelf.

Do you have any hope for the return of the Peace Corps program to China? If it does return, do you have any hopes for changes they could make to the program?

I've been thinking about this a great deal the last couple of days: if it were to come back, what sort of act of political will would that take in our environment right now? If President Biden or the State Department just announced unilaterally that we are going to bring the Peace Corps back? It's difficult because there are pieces of legislation that were advanced by Senator Scott and Senator Rubio from Florida that perhaps are tied with political or presidential ambitions. It's difficult to work around some of the threats senators are making and for the Peace Corps to go back, it's going to take strong leadership. The Peace Corps itself has been remarkably silent and cowardly in the face of some of these one-sided attacks. It would take some political leadership from the Peace Corps to sit down with these senators and to get the White House and other senators on the side of the Peace Corps to explain what exactly the agency does and why it's important for it to return to China. If it could be done in a way that there's a dialogue about the conditions of the Peace Corps reporting, for example maybe it shouldn't be in Sichuan anymore but should be in Xinjiang and in Tibet. At least you're having a discussion where you can go back to the Chinese authorities and say that we want to come back but it's going to be in these provinces. And then if the Chinese side says no, at least we tried and then I could live with that. Frankly, that's a much healthier way of going about this than simply saying the Peace Corps shouldn't be in China because it's helping the Communist Party and then the Peace Corps and other politicians saying, "Yeah, you're right," and shrugging their shoulders and walking away.

Jonathan Becker CMC '24Student Journalist

Abbie Rowe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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