Stephen Or­lins: A life de­fined, en­riched by China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By ZHANG YUWEI in New York yuweizhang@chi­nadai­

Stephen A. Or­lins was one of the first few Amer­i­cans who trav­eled to China shortly af­ter the two coun­tries es­tab­lished diplo­matic ties in 1979. Since then his vis­its be­came more and more fre­quent and China — as he puts it — came to “de­fine” his life.

Or­lins, 63, a for­mer diplo­mat, lawyer, banker and in­vestor, now leads New York­based Na­tional Com­mit­tee on US- China Re­la­tions, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that en­cour­ages un­der­stand­ing of China and the US.

“It was my dream at the very be­gin­ning to make a con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety and to the people, and to the (USChina) re­la­tion­ship,” said Or­lins, who has been pres­i­dent of the com­mit­tee since 2005.

Through­out the year, Or­lins helps put to­gether a num­ber of pro­grams that pro­mote a “con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship” be­tween the world’s two largest economies, work that he calls “very re­ward­ing”.

His route to China started when Or­lins signed up for Man­darin in 1970 at Har­vard Col­lege. He never im­aged that de­ci­sion would im­pact the rest of his life and lead him to be­com­ing one of the most rep­utable China hands in the US to­day.

Re­call­ing his mo­ti­va­tion to study Chi­nese back then, Or­lins said it was mostly a “re­sult of Amer­ica’s in­ter­est in Asia, which was mostly a prod­uct of the war in Viet­nam”.

“We needed Amer­i­cans who would be able to un­der­stand Asia by un­der­stand­ing China and Chi­nese,” he added.

Most of Or­lins’ ca­reer has had some­thing to do with China. In the ’ 70s, af­ter re­ceiv­ing his law de­gree at Har­vard, Or­lins served on the le­gal team at the US Depart­ment of State that helped es­tab­lish diplo­matic re­la­tions with China. From the mid ’80s to the early ’90s, he served as a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at Lehman Broth­ers in Hong Kong.

In 1979, Or­lins moved to China and worked for the Bei­jing mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment to teach con­tract law — a year af­ter China started its eco­nomic re­forms — where he in­ter­acted with mid-level govern­ment of­fi­cials, some of whom he is still friends with to­day.

Or­lins was the Demo­crat nom­i­nee for the US Congress from New York’s Third Con­gres­sional District in 1992, los­ing by “very lit­tle”, he re­called, sev­eral thou­sand out of some 300,000 votes. Af­ter that he went into pri­vate eq­uity and worked on deals through­out Asia.

“As I look back on my en­tire ca­reer, they were some of the most in­ter­est­ing, ex­cit­ing and im­por­tant things that I’ve ever done,” said Or­lins, who likes to com­pare what he saw when he first vis­ited China in the past decades to what he sees to­day.

Ev­ery time he passes through Shen­zhen, bor­der­ing Hong Kong to the south, Or­lins thinks of his first visit there in the early ’80s when lo­cal of­fi­cials showed him the rice pad­dies in the city, which they planned to de­velop into a “spe­cial eco­nomic zone”.

“I just thought, ‘it’s not pos­si­ble’,” re­called Or­lins, “but here to­day Shen­zhen is now a first-world city.”

“The change has been enor­mous,” he said. “I could have never imag­ined this de­vel­op­ment.”

The China ex­pert fol­lows China events closely wher­ever he is. Some must-watch events for Or­lins in­clude the two ses­sions — the an­nual ses­sions of the Na­tional People’s Congress, China’s top leg­isla­tive body, and its ad­vi­sory body, the Chi­nese People’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence.

“What they are talk­ing about in all these dif­fer­ent is­sues will de­ter­mine the fu­ture of China and the fu­ture of US-China re­la­tions,” he noted.

Or­lins’ com­mit­ment to fos­ter­ing a con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship be­tween the US and China has a deep per­sonal con­nec­tion — his adopted Chi­nese daugh­ter, now 26 years old, who lives in Bei­jing.

“If I had not stud­ied Chi­nese, I can’t think of what the other path I would have been on is,” said Or­lins. “It’s de­fined where I lived, it’s de­fined my views of the world, and it’s de­fined who my friends are.”

Or­lins has also wit­nessed trans­for­ma­tions in the lives of his Chi­nese friends. “They’ve done it through


Born: 1950

• Har­vard Law School • Pres­i­dent, Na­tional Com­mit­tee on United States-China Re­la­tions, (2005 - present) • Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor, Lehman Broth­ers (1985 -1991); • Pres­i­dent, Lehman Broth­ers Asia (1987 - 1990) • Le­gal Ad­vi­sor, United States Depart­ment of State (1976 -1979) hard work, through fine ed­u­ca­tion and through a vi­sion of what China will be­come,” he said.

Or­lins’ work at the 47-yearold NCUSCR in­cludes cre­at­ing pro­grams that bring to­gether ex­perts from both coun­tries to in­ter­act and ed­u­cate Amer­i­cans and Chi­nese about each other’s coun­tries. He re­cently ac­com­pa­nied a del­e­ga­tion of five US Con­gress­men to China af­ter the Two Ses­sions. The pur­pose, as he puts it, was to pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for the US politi­cians to un­der­stand China and in­ter­act with Chi­nese of­fi­cials.

“China af­fects the lives of ev­ery sin­gle Amer­i­can be­cause of trade is­sues and the fact that China’s role in the world is so much more im­por­tant than it was then,” he said.

De­spite oc­ca­sional short­term con­flicts be­tween the two largest economies, Or­lins said the in­creas­ing bi­lat­eral in­vest­ment and people-topeo­ple ex­changes will help en­hance un­der­stand­ing and re­duce mis­trust.

“In the long term, people are driven by feed­ing their fam­i­lies, ed­u­cat­ing their chil­dren, pro­vid­ing a bet­ter place for their chil­dren,” said Or­lins. “I be­lieve that the eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship is the defin­ing part of the US-China re­la­tion­ship.”

His ob­ser­va­tions of the ma­jor events in China make him op­ti­mistic about the Chi­nese lead­er­ship led by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and the re­form agenda set out in the past two ses­sions.

“If the re­forms that have been talked about at the two ses­sions and the Five-Year­Plan are im­ple­mented over the next five years, the eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship is go­ing to be­come closer and stronger and it’s go­ing to pull the two coun­tries to­gether,” he said.

The ques­tion of “what’s next” for China con­cerns many China watch­ers, as slower growth — around 7.5 per­cent — is pre­dicted for the world’s No 2 econ­omy.

Or­lins said the Chi­nese govern­ment has made “strong” de­ci­sions on eco­nomic poli­cies and the new lead­er­ship is “quite clear on what needs to be done”. And fi­nan­cial re­forms such as lib­er­al­iza­tion of bank­ing, he noted, is an im­por­tant part of eco­nomic re­form in China.

“It’s not easy to do. The ques­tion re­ally is: how you se­quence it,” he said.

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Stephen A Or­lins is pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on US-China Re­la­tions in New York.

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