Terry Lautz on “Americans in China: Encounters with the People’s Republic”

Terry Lautz is former vice president of the Henry Luce Foundation and has chaired the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the Lingnan Foundation, and the Yale- China Association. Lautz attended Taipei American School in Taiwan, graduated from Harvard College (magna cum laude), and holds MA and PhD degrees from Stanford University. He writes on the history of US-China relations is currently a Moynihan Research Fellow at Syracuse University.
Jonathan Becker CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Terry Lautz on March 11, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Terry Lautz.

Your book is about Americans who spent their lives promoting relations with China and trying to understand China. If I may ask, what is your own story of working on China-related issues since you spent many years at the Luce Foundation, which is a major funder of programs to promote bilateral cultural exchanges?

I first got interested and concerned about China when I was in college, which was during the Vietnam War. A lot of my friends were being drafted into the U.S. Army, and I also ended up in the Army and served in Vietnam. That gave me a first-hand realization that American leaders and the American public just knew far too little about Asian history and culture. In many ways, Vietnam was fought as a proxy war--it was against communism but was also against China. That was what led me to go to graduate school to study Chinese and Japanese as well as Russian history. After that I was looking for teaching jobs, which were few and far between at that time, and I ended up working in the nonprofit sector, first with the Asia Society, and then with the Yale China Association, which took me to Hong Kong. At that point, Mainland China was starting to open, so I was there at a very exciting time. After three years with Yale-China, I joined the Luce Foundation in New York.

What role do you think a book like this has to play in the current political climate between China and the U.S.?

I hope that the book will add a useful historical perspective and give some context to our understanding of China. The deterioration of US-China relations is very discouraging, not to mention dangerous. Throughout the last few decades, the relationship has always had its ups and downs. We need to realize that this relationship has always been complex. We're coming out of a period where we thought that China was going to liberalize and be more open, but it's gone in a more authoritarian direction. One of the points of my book is that many of the underlying issues, these stark differences that we have in terms of our values such as human rights and freedom of speech, were there from the beginning and still have not been resolved. These differences will persist, but it is essential for us to try to find common ground because the alternative would be disastrous.

In your book, I was especially interested in the story of Sid Engst and Joan Hinton. How unusual do you think their story is and what stands out most about it to you?

Their story is extremely unusual. They were not ideologues and were not particularly political when they went to China. They were just really curious and open to learning about the Chinese revolution. And because of the particular time and place that they landed in, they experienced the idealism and the fervent belief that the Chinese revolution was going to really improve conditions and make China more unified. As such, both Joan Hinton and Sid Engst got caught up in the revolution and witnessed this transformation. They became true believers. Even with the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other events, they didn't experience it as badly as some others. Also, they always blamed the local level officials for problems rather than the top leadership. They continued to believe in Mao because they thought what he had accomplished for the Chinese people was so important.

At the end of the chapter on Elizabeth Perry, now a professor at Harvard, you talk about Chinese international students in the U.S. and their capacity to enrich both the U.S. and China. To what extent do you think education can serve as an apolitical way for the two countries to cooperate and repair their badly damaged ties now? 

In the past 15 or 20 years, Chinese students have been the largest single group of international students in the United States. They have contributed a great deal to our understanding of China and hopefully the experience has contributed to their understanding of the United States too. But we shouldn't be naive. Just because a Chinese student comes to the U.S. to study, it doesn't automatically mean they are going to be positive about the US. In some cases, they become more nationalistic, more defensive of China. In other cases, the Chinese students group together, living together, eating together, and speaking Chinese together. That's a natural thing to do, and students from other countries do the same thing if there are large enough numbers. It’s important for American colleges and universities to try to break down those barriers and provide opportunities for interaction. I hope that higher education will continue to be not only a beacon for Chinese students, but a very significant means of exchanging ideas and having real discussions about our different interests and values.

I really enjoyed your quote from James Mann in the Melinda Liu chapter: “The cardinal sin committed by American news organizations in covering China is to portray it, always, in one overly simplistic frame.” What are the causes of such simplistic framing?  How can this be remedied? 

Education is part of the remedy, but it's not just that. It is also interaction. It is the ability to go to China, to have Chinese friends, and not just be guided by what you might read in the media. The media is always going to emphasize the most dramatic events. That's what media does. There's such a propensity to look at China in binary terms, either as a place that we should admire or a place we should despise. We've seen these images and perceptions of China come in positive and negative pairs that are very superficial. That said, I do think they do go deeper than they did, say, 30 or 40 years ago when interaction with China was much more limited.

What do you think our overall takeaway should be from reading your book and studying the cases of these Americans? Do you have hope that individuals like these can facilitate a better dialogue between China and the U.S.?

I am optimistic about the long-term relationship because, as we see from these stories, we have so many shared concerns. But we need to understand that trying to change China from the outside is impossible. It's not going to happen unless China wants change. I think the idea that Americans should change China goes back to the missionary movement. China was desperately poor and in a state of crisis when missionaries went there, so it was natural for them to be paternalistic. So, the idea that helping China is the right thing to do–that it is a moral responsibility to do so–is deeply embedded in the DNA of the relationship that Americans have with China. We need to get over that and be more pragmatic and realistic. We need to accept the fact that the PRC now is a major power and is no longer the poor and backward China of the past. 

Jonathan Becker CMC '24Student Journalist

Huangdan2060, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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