Ping-pong opened his door to China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CHEN WEI­HUA in Wash­ing­ton chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­

Dou­glas Spel­man was a stu­dent at Har­vard Univer­sity in 1972 when he learned that a Chi­nese ping-pong team would visit the United States that spring. The PhD stu­dent of his­tory and East Asian lan­guages, who was then tak­ing time teach­ing a course on China at Buck­nell Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia, wanted to get in­volved.

How­ever, when he went to New York to talk to Pre­ston Schoyer at the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on US-China Re­la­tions, which was to re­ceive the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion, he was told they al­ready had enough peo­ple.

Luck­ily, Schoyer still let Spel­man join the team of Amer­i­can in­ter­preters for the ping­pong del­e­ga­tion, the first of­fi­cial Chi­nese sports del­e­ga­tion to the US since 1949.

“We were not able to go to China, and there was no con­tact be­tween US and China. So this was the first time and it was very ex­cit­ing to be part of the trip,” Spel­man re­called.

But he and his Amer­i­can in­ter­preter col­leagues knew they could not match the pro­fes­sional Chi­nese in­ter­preters. Spel­man him­self had had lim­ited chances to use his spo­ken Chi­nese for sev­eral years. Nonethe­less, they were able to fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tion in many ways to smooth in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion and Amer­i­cans they met.

Do­ing mostly in­for­mal in­ter­pre­ta­tions for the ping-pong team trav­el­ing across the US, Spel­man was glad to see the play­ers wel­comed by Amer­i­cans. “Peo­ple were very ex­cited about them, de­spite the fact that we had been sep­a­rated for 20 years, and were en­e­mies and fought each other in the Korean War,” he said.

That trip took the ping-pong team to sev­eral cities, in­clud­ing Detroit, Wil­liams­burg, New York, and San Fran­cisco in April 1972, as Spel­man re­mem­bered vividly.

The pri­vate plane cir­cled the Grand Canyon, and the play­ers vis­ited the Uni­ver­sal Stu­dio in Los An­ge­les and vine­yards in Napa Val­ley, meet­ing peo­ple like leg­endary wine­maker Robert Mon­davi.

That vol­un­teer work for the ping-pong team quickly paid off when in 1973, Spel­man, still a Har­vard stu­dent, and sev­eral of the Amer­i­can in­ter­preters were granted visas to visit the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

“We had a good, won­der­ful trip,” Spel­man said of the month-long visit that he and his wife Nancy went on with the other Amer­i­cans.

They not only vis­ited attractions in Shang­hai, Bei­jing, Xi’an and Guangzhou, but also went to places such as a May 7th cadre school in Shashiyu out­side Bei­jing, where cadres were re­ceiv­ing the so-called reed­u­ca­tion from peas­ants and work­ers dur­ing the “cul­ture revo­lu­tion” (1966-76).

Spel­man was at Har­vard dur­ing a great time when John Fair­bank and Ben­jamin Schwartz, two prom­i­nent schol­ars on China, were teach­ing there. In fact, Fair­bank was his PhD ad­viser and sug­gested that he should write his dis­ser­ta­tion on Cai Yuan­pei, a prom­i­nent Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tor and politi­cian.

He had ap­plied for grad­u­ate school to study China largely due to his fas­ci­na­tion with the Chi­nese lan­guage and cul­ture af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Ober­lin Col­lege in 1963 with a re­li­gion ma­jor. Find­ing the prospect of be­com­ing a min­is­ter in church less at­trac­tive than he pre­vi­ously had thought, he took an op­por­tu­nity to teach English in Tai­wan for two years, a de­ci­sion Spel­man de­scribed as “Peace Corp mo­ti­va­tion” but clearly changed the course of his ca­reer.

Hav­ing en­joy­ing the life in Tai­wan, Spel­man ap­plied for a job man­ag­ing the Ober­lin Col­lege in Tai­wan pro­gram af­ter com­plet­ing his PhD de­gree at Har­vard in 1973. He also taught a Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tual his­tory course to those stu­dents.

Af­ter a year in Tai­wan, Spel­man and his fam­ily, his wife Nancy, a psy­chol­o­gist, and daugh­ter Brooke moved to Hong Kong where he was man­ag­ing the Yale Univer­sity in China pro­gram at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong. Their sec­ond daugh­ter Erin was born there in 1975, and Nancy earned her PhD in psy­chol­ogy at Hong Kong Univer­sity.

In the 1970s, Hong Kong was a hot des­ti­na­tion for Amer­i­cans en­gag­ing in China study since they could not travel to the Chi­nese main­land.

His stay there from 1974 to 1977 was in crit­i­cal years in Chi­nese his­tory when top lead­ers Mao Ze­dong and Zhou En­lai died, and Deng Xiaop­ing was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ups and downs.

See­ing sev­eral Yale stu­dents tak­ing US For­eign Ser­vice ex­ams in Hong Kong, Spel­man wanted to give it a try too. “My wife and I thought we would try it for five years and see how it was. I stayed for 30 years, and I liked it,” said Spel­man, who re­tired from the For­eign Ser­vice in 2007.

For Spel­man, it was all an in­ter­est­ing time for some­one who has stud­ied China. He took his first job fol­low­ing China and the third world in the State de­part­ment’s Bureau of In­tel­li­gence and Re­search at a time when the two coun­tries were nor­mal­iz­ing their diplomatic re­la­tions.

This time he was as­signed an in­for­mal in­ter­preter’s job when for­mer Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing vis­ited Wash­ing­ton in 1979 and stayed at Blair House in Wash­ing­ton. He saw both Deng and his wife Zhuo Lin.

“For those of us study­ing China, it was very ex­cit­ing be­cause the re­la­tion­ship was de­vel­oped in a pos­i­tive way,” Spel­man re­called, adding that this was de­spite prob­lems such as frozen as­sets had to be sorted out be­fore a for­mal diplomatic tie.

Spel­man went back to Hong Kong in 1979, this time work­ing at the US con­sulate for four years, first in the con­sular sec­tion and then the eco­nomic sec­tion, an­a­lyz­ing the Chi­nese econ­omy.

China’s econ­omy was barely open at that time. But Spel­man said the feel­ing was ex­cit­ing. “Changes were tak­ing place. We were very ex­cited. It looked like China was mov­ing to­ward more like us,” he said.

He con­tin­ued his work at the eco­nomic sec­tion in the US em­bassy in Bei­jing from 1983 to 1985 when he was deal­ing with spe­cific ar­eas, in­clud­ing avi­a­tion and en­ergy, and postal ex­changes.

Since then, he has served in var­i­ous posts in the Chi­nese main­land, Tai­wan, Hong Kong and Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, in­clud­ing wit­ness­ing the Hong

DOU­GLAS G. SPEL­MAN Se­nior Ad­viser, Kissinger In­sti­tute on China and the United States

Age: 72 Ober­lin Col­lege, BA (1963) Har­vard Univer­sity, MA, PhD in his­tory and East Asian lan­guages (1973) Deputy Direc­tor, Kissinger In­sti­tute on China and the United States (2009-2012) Re­tired from For­eign Ser­vice in 2007 with the rank of min­is­ter coun­selor in the Se­nior For­eign Ser­vice Joined US For­eign Kong han­dover of its sovereignty to China from Bri­tain in 1997.

He said many peo­ple were sus­pi­cious of the Chi­nese govern­ment be­fore the han­dover. “We in the con­sulate ac­tu­ally said, ‘No, we can trust them,’” said Spel­man, adding that the main rea­sons were that be­sides the eco­nomic ben­e­fits, the Chi­nese govern­ment did want Hong Kong to be­come a show­case for Tai­wan.

Af­ter serv­ing as US con­sul gen­eral in Shang­hai from 2002 to 2005, Spel­man went back to the in­tel­li­gence and re­search bureau, co­in­ci­den­tally his first and last job at the State De­part­ment.

Wit­ness­ing the China-US re­la­tions evolv­ing in the past half cen­tury, Spel­man said the re­la­tion­ship is in a dif­fi­cult time now.

He be­lieves the two coun­tries re­ally need to find ways to ad­just to the re­al­ity of China as a ris­ing power and the US the pre­dom­i­nant sta­tus quo power.

“I think we re­ally need to do that, but it’s not easy,” he said.

To Spel­man, many Chi­nese are not com­fort­able with the US be­ing the pre­dom­i­nant power, while many Amer­i­cans are not ready to give China a big­ger say.

He sug­gested the US side needs to be more sen­si­tive to

• Ser­vice in 1977; do­mes­tic as­sign­ments in­cluded the Bureau of In­tel­li­gence and Re­search, the Tai­wan Co­or­di­na­tion Staff, and the In­dia desk. Over­seas, he served in Hong Kong (twice), Bei­jing, Kuala Lumpur, Sin­ga­pore, the Taipei of­fice of the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute in Tai­wan, and, from 2002 to 2005, con­sul gen­eral in Shang­hai. In­ter­preter, Chi­nese ping-pong team to the US (1972) Teach­ing Chi­nese his­tory at Buck­nell Univer­sity and man­ag­ing stu­dent ex­change pro­grams in Tai­wan (Ober­lin-in-Tai­wan) and Hong Kong (Yale-in­China) in the 1970s Chi­nese feel­ings, and de­scribed the US sur­veil­lance along China’s coast as “provoca­tive.”

He also ex­pressed puz­zle­ment over the re­cent ten­sions be­tween China and its neigh­bors in both the South and East China seas, ten­sions that he said do not serve China’s in­ter­est and have the po­ten­tial to draw US and China into armed con­flicts.

He felt dis­cour­aged that the two coun­tries’ re­la­tion­ship has not ad­vanced as many had ex­pected af­ter last year’s historic sum­mit be­tween Pres­i­dents Xi Jin­ping and Barack Obama at the Sun­ny­lands es­tate in Cal­i­for­nia, de­spite so many pos­i­tive in­ter­ac­tions in the re­la­tion­ship.

“Both sides need to give the high­est pri­or­ity to try to work this thing out. Con­flict is al­most unimag­in­able,” he said.

Spel­man praised China’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment in the past decades as a won­der­ful achieve­ment.

He is, how­ever, con­cerned about is­sues such as en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and the widen­ing gap be­tween the rich and poor.

“I have worked on China for a long time, I re­ally want it to suc­ceed, and I think there is good ev­i­dence that it will suc­ceed in meet­ing these chal­lenges.”


Dou­glas Spel­man is a se­nior ad­vi­sor at the Kissinger In­sti­tute on China and the United States.

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