Ending the Peace Corps program in China is not smart

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Last month, before the corona virus outbreak, the Peace Corps informed the Congress that it would begin terminating its program in China in 2020. Sen. Marc Rubio (R-Fla.) applauded the decision, noting that China no longer is a developing country and, echoing the sentiment, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told reporters: “I’m glad the Peace Corps has finally come to its senses.”

I beg to differ.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in India (1965-67) and I’ve done research on what America gains from allocating funds in the federal budget for the Peace Corps. Measured against our country’s long-term national interests, pulling the Peace Corps out of China now looks like a dumb move.

Let’s start with a few facts. The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by President Kennedy in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union when the U.S. was competing for the hearts and minds of people living in so-called Third World developing nations. The Peace Corps program grew rapidly, sending Americans on two-year assignments to more than 60 countries by the end of the 1960s and reaching a strength of almost 16,000 volunteers in the field.

Partisan politics and the Vietnam War tilted the Peace Corps into a long decline, coming close to extinction during the Nixon administration. The number of volunteers serving dropped to below 5,000 in the 1970s, and then slowly climbed up to about 8,000. Three presidents in a row — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — made campaign pledges to double the number but never came close. Since the Peace Corps’ creation in 1961, 141 countries have hosted its volunteers and more than 235,000 American men and women have served in these countries.  

Today, however, there are only about 7,300 serving, and most Americans either have not heard of the Peace Corps or thought it was no longer active.

The first Peace Corps volunteers went to China in 1993 and it was never a big program. At the end of 2019, there were fewer than 150 volunteers working in China. Here’s why pulling the Peace Corps out of China is a dumb move.

Think about your grandchildren. They are or will be growing up in a turbulent world. Part of the turmoil is coming from climate change, but more right now seems to be coming from other countries: conflict in the Middle East, Brexit in Europe, immigrants from Central America. And China’s rise.  

China has four times the population of the U.S., 1.4 billion v. our 330 million.  In the space of 40 years it has advanced from being one of the world’s poorest countries to having an economy that rivals ours and a military force that is surpassed only by ours and Russia’s. Many foreign policy experts say that the U.S. relationship with China will be our most important relationship in the 21st century. In other words, our national security, the well-being of your grandchildren and their children will depend on having a friendly relationship with China.

Friendly relationships between countries are built and maintained in many ways. An arms race is not one of them. A trade war is not one of them. We can have a competitive — and even adversarial — relationship with China, but we will put future generations at risk if we do not pursue partnerships from the grassroots to the top echelons of the government.

Reflect on the sources of national power. Isn’t there more power in people than guns? In our competition with China today, experts are concerned that China is ahead of us in 5G telecommunications and artificial intelligence. This is brain power, not gun power.

Now think about the Peace Corps in this context. How can the United States have a good partnership with China if we don’t understand the Chinese people, if we can’t speak their language(s)? Show me a better program for understanding the people in other countries. I’ve looked and haven’t found one.  

More boldly, how can we have a good partnership with China if the Chinese don’t understand the American people? If we were really smart, there would be as many Chinese men and women engaged in volunteer service in the U.S. as we have in China. And the numbers on each side would be closer to 1,000 than 100.

Our congressmen appear to be myopic about the Peace Corps because voters are myopic. We live in a big and tumultuous world. If we don’t find ways of having a friendly relationship with China, we will put future generations of Americans at risk. From all evidence, the Peace Corps is one of the best ways of building friendship. Not just in China, of course.

Lex Rieffel is a nonresident fellow with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

Tags China Peace Corps US-China relations Volunteering

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