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Peace Corps To End China Program

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Starting this summer, there will no longer be Peace Corps volunteers working in China. Years ago, NPR's own Rob Schmitz was a Peace Corps volunteer based in southwest China. He joins us now to explain why the Peace Corps decided to end its China program and what the impact of that might be.

And, Rob, for this conversation, I'm going to ask you to put on a slightly different hat than your typical NPR correspondent. I want you to speak to your personal experience.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Sure.

SHAPIRO: Good to have you here.

SCHMITZ: Well, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Well, first, what explanation is being given for this decision?

SCHMITZ: Well, officially, the Peace Corps has not given a detailed reason, and they have not responded to my interview request. But I am speaking to a lot of volunteers, and the ones in China right now are saying that they were told that because China is no longer a developing country, the Peace Corps decided to graduate the program. Whatever the reason, this move came suddenly, and the organization's own staff in China did not find out until the announcement that Peace Corps made to the media. And there are a lot of unanswered questions about the political background to the decision and what went into it.

SHAPIRO: So the reasons you're hearing have nothing to do with politics, but people with strong political opinions about China are applauding this move, right?

SCHMITZ: Oh, yeah. Florida Senator Rick Scott, who's a Republican, hailed this decision, and he said that, quote, "there's no reason we should prop up our adversaries with U.S. tax dollars," unquote. I think what's somewhat problematic about that idea is that Peace Corps volunteers are not involved in helping China's government with a lot of controversial tasks that China is involved in like facial recognition surveillance. You know, they're not doing internships at Huawei.

Peace Corps China volunteers are English teachers throughout less developed parts of western China. What I think critics of the program do not understand is that Peace Corps volunteers in China are not propping up an authoritarian government. They're building relationships and teaching young Chinese about American values. You know, when I was a volunteer, I taught Western civ, U.S. history. And that included concepts like democracy and how it works in the U.S. You know, this is likely one of the most important, unintentional soft power programs the U.S. has in China.

SHAPIRO: I know that since this was announced, you've been in touch with people who were volunteers in China when you were in the 1990s. What's the reaction from them?

SCHMITZ: I think there's a lot of anger. There is a lot of confusion, and there's a lot of understanding that this political atmosphere that the U.S. and China is in is having a big impact on this decision and an unfortunate impact on this program because, you know, this is a program that has only produced around 1,300 volunteers. But among those volunteers, you know - we did a survey not too long ago. A third of the people that were surveyed said that after the Peace Corps, they ended up working in jobs that focused on China. This program has produced writers, journalists, U.S. Foreign Service officers, academics, all who have contributed an abundance of expertise to the U.S. understanding of China.

I think that's precisely because this was a people-to-people program that fostered a lot of lasting relationships between individual Americans and Chinese. And, you know, these days, as we enter into almost a Cold War with China and when our governments are routinely misunderstanding each other and speaking over each other, I think the Peace Corps is needed more than ever in China.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about your personal experience. I can imagine teaching English in an underdeveloped part of the country, you are likely the first American many of these students I met.

SCHMITZ: I was. I was sent to a city called Zigong. I was one of three volunteers, and we were sent there. We were the first Americans to live there, the first foreigners to live there since before 1949, before the communists took over China.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SCHMITZ: So every day was an adventure, and I think that the students that we taught probably taught us a lot more than we ever taught them.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, who is now our correspondent in Berlin. Before that, he was our Shanghai correspondent, and before that, a Peace Corps volunteer in China.

Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks a lot, Ari.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this audio, and in a previous introduction, based on information from congressional press releases, we incorrectly say Peace Corps volunteers will no longer be in China starting this summer. In fact, the China program will end in 2021.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 25, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In this audio, and in a previous introduction, based on information from congressional press releases, we incorrectly say Peace Corps volunteers will no longer be in China starting this summer. In fact, the China program will end in 2021.

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