Peace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback

The Peace Corps’ abrupt decision to end its program in China has spurred confusion, including from lawmakers who question whether the agency is caving to political pressure from Florida’s two Republican senators.

Congress was informed of the decision on Jan. 16, when the agency sent a note to the appropriations committees that it would be withdrawing from China, ending a program where volunteers teach English to university students in some of the nation’s poorest interior provinces. 

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The drumbeat to get the Peace Corps out of China was led by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has pressed to strip it of independent status under the White House while blocking it from placing volunteers in any “hostile nations.”

Scott has introduced legislation to place the Peace Corps under the State Department.

Steve Hess, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2006 to 2008 and is now a political science professor at Transylvania University, is leading a Change.org petition pushing the Peace Corps to reverse its decision.

“The fact that Scott was trying to put them under the State Department and also had in the legislation to end the China program gave a lot of us the suspicion that basically Peace Corps almost sacrificed the China program to save the independence of the rest of the agency,” Hess said. 

Peace Corps volunteers in China only learned their service was in jeopardy after Scott’s fellow Florida senator, Republican Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSchumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe Trump administration designates B of PPP funds for community lenders The Memo: Trump's Scarborough tweets unsettle his allies MORE, tweeted out the news.

The tweets also ignited the effort to try and save the program, with critics arguing the already-tense relationship between China and the U.S. favors keeping in place an organization whose main goal is to promote world peace and friendship.

A source with knowledge of the Peace Corps’ China program told The Hill the decision to leave the country was closely held at the highest levels, with political appointees sidelining the career staff who oversee the program, informing them only after the decision had been made.

“It was made at a very high level without consulting what seems like appropriate staff,” the source said. “It just doesn’t fit with Peace Corps’ mission. It wasn’t handled to the standard that I think the agency normally holds for auditing and closing a program. It happened really quick without taking into account factors that would normally be taken into account.”

The Peace Corps press office did not respond to numerous questions sent by The Hill seeking the rationale behind the decision, sending only a statement announcing its withdrawal from China issued weeks after notifying Congress. Peace Corps leaders also did not answer questions when approached by The Hill after leaving a meeting with lawmakers.

Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyMental health crisis puts everyone on the front lines The Hill's Campaign Report: Flynn 'unmasking' enters 2020 debate Candidates shift to volunteering as pandemic halts campaigning MORE III (D-Mass.), who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, said he wanted to learn more about the decision.

“I think one of the great strengths of Peace Corps is the idea that you have volunteers on the ground in countries that are able to express United States values in a nonpolitical way,” he said.

Scott told The Hill he’s not sure if his bill had anything to do with the decision.

He said his concern is twofold: He doesn’t think the Peace Corps should be in a nation as wealthy as China — let alone one he considers a threat to the U.S. — and he also wants to channel the diplomatic benefits of the Peace Corps differently.

“We should get a return on every dollar we spend,” Scott said, referencing taxpayer money.

“Peace Corps doesn’t go into developed countries. Right? That’s what they do, they go into developing countries. This is a developed country. So if you look at the Peace Corps criteria, they’re not meeting their own criteria.”

The Peace Corps typically works in developing nations but doing so isn’t explicitly part of their mission of promoting world peace. Their guiding principles are cultural exchange and helping “people of interested countries in meeting their need for skilled individuals.”

And while China’s economy is certainly growing, much of that growth has been distributed unequally. It is ranked 85th on the United Nations Human Development Index, behind Costa Rica, Panama, Albania, Colombia, Mexico and Peru — all of which have a Peace Corps program. 

Rubio said economics aside, the U.S. has no business putting volunteers in China.

“Given the situation in China today where there’s so much restriction placed on any sort of interaction with what news people can consume, who they can worship or how they can worship, what they read, who they interact with combined with the fact that that program doesn’t have unlimited resources, it has to be allocated to the places where it can make the most impact,” he said. 

Supporters of keeping the Peace Corps in China say it helps U.S. diplomacy.

“The United States should maintain a Peace Corps presence in China. And it would be in my view a mistake to pull out of China,” said Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiPeace Corps faces uncertain future with no volunteers in field Overnight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak MORE (D-Calif.), who served in Peace Corps in Ethiopia. 

“I’ve yet to find a reason that justifies pulling out. Clearly China is a developed nation, but not everywhere. And the presence of the Peace Corps provides an important opportunity for Americans to gain an understanding of modern-day Chinese culture and society,” he said. “That would be of significant value for American diplomacy.”

Hess pointed to volunteers who move on to careers in development and diplomacy in arguing that the Peace Corps should retain its role in China.

“Our reputation with China is so fraught right now,” he said. “The reality of it is that China is such an important partnership. It’s not like we can have this adversarial relationship with them permanently, because we’re already so intertwined with them. They’re our largest trading partner, and to solve world problems we need to work with China. And Peace Corps was a part of maintaining that relationship.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus further sped the Peace Corps’ exit from the country, with volunteers evacuated in early February. That decision circumvents what likely would have been the next battle between the Peace Corps and Scott. The agency said in its letter to Congress that it wanted to allow volunteers in the country to finish out their service, with groups of volunteers leaving in stages just had they come in.

The agency’s official announcement on the withdrawal says the Peace Corps decided to “graduate” its program, a term typically used to describe a joint decision between both countries to end volunteer presence.

“They hadn’t been told by [Chinese] partners that we were not meeting needs or that we weren’t needed anymore,” the source familiar with the China program told The Hill. “They’re really cutting us off from being able to promote people-to-people diplomacy in a country where it could be argued that it’s most needed.”