David Brown: Pioneer Diplomat’s Journey in Asia

By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2016.
It was subsequently published in the Blue Net China magazine, Vol.2..

When you worked as an officer at the US embassy in Taiwan, was that the first time you visited Asia?

            No, I lived in Taiwan for a year of study abroad during college. Before me, my university had never sent anyone to Taiwan. I took my family, including one child, and we stayed there for eight or nine months. I enjoyed my time there doing research and meeting people. Later, as soon as I joined the foreign service of the US, they sent me right back to Taiwan. I passed a year there doing ordinary work with the embassy and getting involved with the community group. This was in the 1960s, when Chiang Kai-shek was still alive. 

What about the time when you were in Beijing? 

            I worked for the US embassy in Beijing from 1981 to 1983, when the policy of reform and opening just came out. I was head of the economic section and there were mainly two things for us to do. The first thing was to report on Chinese economy and Chinese economic policies. It was a very interesting time because the economic reform and opening had just started. There were heated debates on this topic, with some people doubting whether or not the policy was in keeping with the Marxist principles and socialism. If you allow some people to get rich first, will that phenomenon be compatible with the socialist principles? I found it engaging to try and understand those debates going on in China. You have to understand that within two decades before the reform and opening, Chinese economic policies had changed every three or four years, from the Great Leap Forward to the anti-rightist campaign to the industrialization campaign. So in 1981, people had no idea whether this new policy of economic reform and opening would last for three years or thirty years. 

            The second thing we did was related to the background when President Carter had just announced economic normalization with China in 1979. As a result, the two countries had to negotiate agreements on all kinds of ordinary things such as textile exports, airline transportations and tourism. We advised people in Washington to proceed with the negotiation by helping them understand what the Chinese side wanted and analyzing what was realistic to achieve. 

It seems like you witnessed a lot of transition points in contemporary Chinese history. What about the time when you were in HK?

            The time when I was in HK was an interesting one, because it was right after the Tiananmen Square Protest. I arrived there in August as a diplomat, and the Chinese government still had a blacklist of the students they wanted to arrest around China. Many of these students had networks, and they escaped to HK in search for protection. When they arrived in HK, the British authorities called up at the US Consulate and said “Help up out! Please take these people off our hands.” They did so because they had a special relationship with China and didn’t want to jeopardize it. The British suggested that it would be very helpful if the American officers could talk with the students and know about what they wanted and where they wanted to go. Then, we would quietly take them out of HK to the US. I was then holding the position that ranked second in the consulate, so that was how I got involved in all that. 

Was there anything particularly interesting that you had to deal with during that time? 

            At that time, the Chinese government was represented in HK by the Xinhua News Agency, and the head of the Xinhua News Agency, Xu Jiatun, was a very active figure in the community. After Zhao Ziyang was arrested for differing with Deng Xiaoping, Xu, who had expressed [sympathy with] understanding of students [who died] in the Tiananmen Square Protest, was called back to China for investigation. But the next thing we knew, he had escaped to HK. When Xu arrived in HK, the British authorities called us up again and said the official wanted to go to the US. He had connections with a particular Taiwan Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, and the temple granted permission for him to come and study Buddhism. So we arranged for him to come to the States, where he stayed quietly for many years until this June, he passed away in Los Angeles. Basically, I spent much of the time coping with the aftermaths of the Tiananmen Square incident. 

If I remember right, around then the discussion on HK’s reversion to China was already on the table. What was people’s attitude towards the reversion after the Tiananmen incident?

            On one hand, they accepted it. They didn’t challenge the idea of becoming citizens of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. People understood that the transfer of sovereignty was happening and they couldn’t oppose it. But they wanted to build as many protections as possible for the autonomy that HK had been promised. This was what the debates on the basic law revolved around: what they could legitimately ask for from Beijing. For instance, their demands would include the freedom of the press, independent judiciary where you could have decisions not politically determined, and gradual movement towards full democracy in HK. In all, HK people were working hard to make this new system work. 

            On the other hand, because HK people enjoyed personal liberty, they became deeply concerned after witnessing the Tiananmen incident. This terribly traumatic incident led to huge demonstrations in HK that involved one-fifth of the population there. In fact, if you only consider the adults, around half of the population were protesting on the street.

Have you gone back to HK ever since and what changes have you seen?

            If you have followed the news lately, you would know that there have been developments that are a reaction to [has been a result of] the Chinese government’s decision to deny HK a [reasonable approach] democratic procedure for [to] electing its next Chief Executive in keeping with the Basic Law promise of orderly progress towards universal suffrage.  [as a progression to its full democracy.] There have been strong reactions among the HK population. Up till then, there had been no one in HK that questioned HK’s identity as part of China. The biggest change in HK I see is that now, in its recent elections, people have stood up and they are now talking about what they would call “localism”: How can they protect HK from harsh policies coming out of Beijing? 

            Regarding the issue of HK’s education system, there have been demonstrations on what mainland China dubbed as “patriotic education” and HK called “brainwashing”. The education had been designed to persuade people in HK that HK was part of China, and that a one-party Communist government was the right way for China. But now, we have young people in HK saying that they reject the idea and that they want an out.  

What differences do you see in people from mainland, HK and Taiwan? 

            All of the things that establish human relations, including the personal relationships, importance of family, personal ties and education ties are very much the same in these three places. But at the same time the politics are different. Since HK and Taiwan had different historical backgrounds, people there possess different aspirations and hope than those of people in mainland China. If you survey on the public opinions in mainland China, you will find that overwhelmingly people accept the political system. They don’t feel that the society is in any way unjust; they see enormous amount of opportunities and the prospect of a better life. But people in HK and Taiwan don’t view the system that way due to the different experiences they had. They have different expectations of what their societies should do and how much freedom they should have. 

Is it that people from mainland place too much hope on the central leadership?

            Yes. I attended a conference held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) the other day, where a presenter showed a set of statistics on Chinese people’s view towards corruption in mainland China. He pointed out that people think their local governments are corrupt, but that’s not the case for the central leadership. However, because of the corruption campaign Xi Jinping is waging and the news day after day about the officials who are corrupt on the central level, this attitude is gradually changing. People now think that not only the local governments are corrupt, but the central government is corrupt as well.  

Was it difficult to assimilate into Asian societies? 

            As a foreigner in another country, you are always in the learning mode. For example, I went to Vietnam in the middle of the war. I had no experience with war, didn’t speak any Vietnamese, and yet had to operate in the society. When I went to Japan after that, I found Japanese society completely different from American society, but it wasn’t difficult to make friends there. So the situation varied from place to place.

How would you compare Japanese society and Chinese society? 

            I think Chinese society is much more open, even though China has a quite homogeneous population with over 90 percent of the people being Han Chinese. Nevertheless, China is a huge country, and people from different areas of the country have different personalities. 

            Japanese society is extremely homogeneous. There is a small Korean minority and some remnants of aboriginal people, but these people [break] make up just 1 percent of the whole Japanese population. The other 99 percent of the population are Japanese. A society like that tends to be closed. I found that more people in China speak English when I was there than in Japan, even though Japan was open to the outside world. As a matter of fact, my wife and I just went back to Japan a month ago, and we found that the situation in Japan hadn’t changed much. The percentage of people who spoke English wasn’t much different from the percentage forty years ago. I view this as a symbol that the Japanese feel very strongly that their way of life is valid. Their personal relationship in some way is more traditionally Confucian than that of current China, in the sense that the rules set for men and women in the society are much determined on the sexual differentiation basis. All societies have that to a degree, but Japan has changed less in comparison to the changes that happened in other countries in the past century. 

The growth of Japanese economy has slowed down greatly in recent years. Do you think China will go through the same phase in the near future?

            The slowing down of the economy is inevitable. What China and Japan were doing before was to try and catch up with the other countries. But when you are at the top already, you have to do what the government is trying to do now, which is to innovate and to be the leading edge. That is way more difficult than just copying others. 

A saying goes that Chinese economy is still too closed to the outside. Do you think so?

            No, but I think we are going through a period of big debate within China about how the economy should develop. One group of economists think that the reform and opening should be carried forward in a robust way, and to an extent their opinions were incorporated into the 2012 Third Plenum reform plan. But there is another group in China who think the other way either for their personal interests, provincial interests, or state-owned enterprise interests. There are people at the policy level who think that keeping the large state-owned enterprises is a good thing for China and the government should therefore protect them, ensuring that the core of the economy is under the control of the Communist Party. This is a very different approach from the reform and opening; it is an approach of “protect and control.” I think if this group of people win, the Chinese economy is going to slow down even more. But if the other group does, then China has the possibility of high GDP growth for a long time. 

How did you grow interests in the Asian societies?

             In 1955, when I was still in high school, a famous book came out called “The Ugly American”. It told a story on a fictitious Southeast Asian country, in which the arrogant, uneducated Americans didn’t understand the local society. On the contrary, the agents from the Soviet Union understood the culture, spoke the language and integrated into the society well. So they were making mockery [on] of  these ugly Americans in Southeast Asia. 

            I was a young student thinking “We can’t let that happen!” And that was when I decided to be a diplomat. A young high school student as I was, I sat there in my room and the university that accepted me asked what course I was going to take when I arrived. I looked through the course catalog while thinking: the story in the book was set in Asia, so I should perhaps learn some Asian languages. I learned that on the whole, Princeton only taught two Asian languages: Chinese and Japanese. I figured Chinese looked interesting. So that was how I got started.  

            As I arrived at the university, I approached to a professor who would later give me my Chinese name and we discussed about the university’s language requirement. He suggested that I could continue to study the languages I had already learned before, which in my case were French and Spanish, and get the requirement out of the way. Then I could start Chinese and see if I liked it. If yes, I could continue. If no, I could just quit. I liked it, so I just kept going for sixty years. 

What was people’s view on China then?

             Back then, China was [enemy. It was the] “Red China” supporting the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Chinese culture, language and history were welcomed. As a matter of fact, when I started my study on Chinese in the sixties, the US had already started to think that the policy of containment towards Chinese was a dead end. We had to come up with a way to accept the fact that China was then controlled by a government we had many problems with. So there were efforts to soften up the containment policy and to open up some doors. 

How do you see Chinese people’s view on people from foreign countries?        

            You are always welcomed in the Chinese society, unless there is an anti-foreign mood in the society. Such mood existed in China at certain periods. Qing dynasty was an example, with its whole idea being keeping China away from the outside world. Qing was different from Ming, when China was much more open at least at the beginning, and also from Tang, when the country was integrated to the extent you could be integrated in a world without any communications other than riding on the horse. So at certain times China was very open. There were times, however, in the 1930s, when there was a high anti-foreign mood originated [in] with Japan but bubbled over to other countries. Later, there was the Cultural Revolution when the anti-foreign attitude was intense. Not individuals but mobs of Chinese felt threatened by the western world and things got out of hands[s].

            China in recent years has been a lot more open, but if you compare China at this moment to three years ago, it’s moving in the wrong direction at least from the point of view[s] of foreigners. China now has something called “National Security Law”, which has established a holiday called “National Security Day”, a day when everyone is supposed to think about national security. On the National Security Day, Chinese are expected to be alert [of] for certain people who try to undermine the society and to report them to the authorities. They need to pay particular attention to people who have contacts with foreign journalists, because foreign journalists always report negative information on China. 

            I feel like there’s a climate now that the party thinks certain western influences are dangerous, and that has created an environment in which some foreigners living in China have left because they don’t feel comfortable. This situation has even extended to the Chinese community abroad, as the Chinese embassy got in touch with the students here at SAIS and said they wanted to organize the Chinese students here and maintain a connection between these students and the embassy.

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