China-US / People

Levine finds joy working on US-China ties

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-11-07 14:16

Levine finds joy working on US-China ties
Levine finds joy working on US-China ties

Henry Levine, senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, talks to China Daily in the newspaper's Washington bureau. Chen Weihua/China Daily

Levine finds joy working on US-China ties

When Henry Levine went home in New York suburbs during the Christmas vacation in 1971, the Bucknell University senior had a chat with his high school pal Jeff Shultz, then a senior at Cornell University. They talked about what they were going to do after graduating from college.

The two had both developed an interest in China. For Levine, the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) under way in China, the social turmoil and change happening in the US and the Vietnam War had aroused his interest in other parts of the world, in particular China.

He still remembers how he opened John King Fairbank's book on East Asia history and was startled to see the long timeline for China going back to Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE). US history literally started in the middle of China's Qing Dynasty (1664-1911). "That really made an impression on me," Levine recalled.

"We decided that we would go to China," Levine said of his conversation with Shultz. "Frankly, when you think about it, it's a little bit crazy."

Both knew that as Americans, they couldn't go to the Chinese mainland at the time due to the lack of diplomatic ties, so they decided to go to Hong Kong, then under British rule.

Across the Pacific

After graduation, the two drove cross country to San Francisco and tried to find a job working on a freighter going to Hong Kong. "We couldn't get jobs because we didn't have any experience," Levine said.

In the end, they bought their own tickets on a freighter that had some passenger compartments and sailed to Hong Kong.

It was his first trip to Asia and the farthest he had gone before that was to Mexico.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful experience," Levine said of the two-week voyage across the ocean, looking at the stars and horizon in the middle of the Pacific and chatting with other passengers who were much older.

However, the hope to find job in Hong Kong was shattered due to the strict employment laws there. The two then learned that Taiwan was a place where they could study Chinese and find job teaching English.

Levine and Schultz arrived in Taiwan in December 1972. Levine ended up spending three-and-a-half years there, mostly at the Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. "It was not just my first exposure to the Chinese and society, but a very deep exposure, because we really interacted a lot," he said. He ate noodles and meals at local shacks and chatted with the vendors.

When Levine returned to the US in 1976 he was not sure what to do. He worked at a bookstore and then as a tour guide at the United Nations headquarters in New York, doing both English and Chinese language tours. He described himself as one the first four men hired for the jobs which had been staffed entirely by women.

Levine went to the Fletcher School at Tufts University in 1978 to study international relations. He kept his interest in China and started a Chinese language lunch group with fellow students.

A significant trip

In the fall of 1980, a high-level Chinese governors' delegation was scheduled to visit the US. Jan Berris of the National Committee on US-China Relations called Levine and invited him to help with his Chinese language skills.

Levine was not sure how good an interpreter he would be, despite his years in Taiwan. He agreed after Berris insisted and told him the State Department would send a professional interpreter.

The trip took the Chinese delegation all over the US and ended up in Hawaii. Levine and the State Department interpreter, Vivian Chang, fell in love and got married eight months later.

Besides finding his love, Levine got a chance to meet some Chinese provincial leaders, including Xi Zhongxun, the head of the Chinese delegation and Party secretary of Guangdong province. More importantly today, he was also the father of current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

So when Xi Jinping visited the US in February 2012 as China's vice-president, Berris, vice-president of the National Committee, put up a photo album from his father's trip to the US, including one of Xi Zhongxun trying to do the hula at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.

Levine said Xi recognized his wife Chang from the photo, probably because she had interpreted for many meetings between top Chinese and US leaders.

A depressing job

Before that trip, Levine had already taken some of the Foreign Service exams. He finally joined the State Department in 1981.

But soon Levine was faced with a major challenge. His newlywed wife was being assigned to Beijing to work at the US embassy but Levine was told by the State Department that there was no position for him there.

Thanks to the intervention of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who knew his wife from a major trip to China, Levine got a position in Beijing as a visa officer.

While the young couple was excited to be together in Beijing, Levine described the visa officer job as a "very unhappy job, a depressing job" because of the high rate of refusal, about 70 percent at that time, totally unlike today.

Levine worked in the State Department's China office starting in 1986, mostly on export control policy. He said he would laugh in later years when Chinese officials raised the issue.

"I laugh because at that time, I was very much involved in a deep fight within the US government on export control policy," he said. "My feeling was then and still is today that we were over-controlling, and controlling too much."

Levine said much of the debate he was involved in was to convince the Pentagon and others to approve items that didn't seem that sensitive, referring to items for duel use. He revealed that the views in other departments were quite extreme at the time.

In Levine's view, the problem was not so prominent because China was not expecting much at that time.

Strategic vision

Levine and his wife went back to work in the US embassy in Beijing in August 1989. He was the No 2 person in the economic section. But due to the drastically deteriorating relationship at the time, Levine had little work to do for a while.

In 1990 he and his colleagues were authorized to go back to China's Ministry of Commerce to conduct informal consultation about China's accession to the World Trade Organization.

It happened after two secret trips to China in the second half of 1989 by then National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Levine's wife, Chang, served as interpreter for the meetings.

Levine returned to the State Department China office in 1996 to head the economic side of the China desk. It was an interesting three years for him on the job because of the several high-level visits. Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the US in late 1997 when a bilateral nuclear pact was reached. US President Bill Clinton also paid a state visit to China in 1998. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji came to the US in 1999.

Levine said while many expected China and the US to reach a deal on WTO during Zhu's trip, it did not materialize in the end, and former senior US officials later realized it was a mistake not to finalize the deal.

Levine, however, believes that unlike today, it was a period when both sides really had a strategic vision for the relationship. "We are willing internally to push and try to make progress," he said.

Consul General

In 1999, Levine was assigned to be the US consul general in Shanghai, an assignment he said should be credited to Susan Shirk, then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Levine spent a big chunck of his time working with the American business community, including doing a monthly briefing for them. AmCham Shanghai was then the second or third largest chapter of American Chamber of Commerce in Asia.

After China joined the WTO in 2001, Levine was busy working with the Shanghai local government helping to implement the WTO. He was deeply impressed by the local government headed by Mayor Xu Kuangdi.

"The local government wanted to implement as quickly and as thoroughly as they could. He was fabulous and amazing," Levine said.

Besides the business community, Levine also found time to travel to Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui and visited universities to talk to students about US policies and US-China relations.

Great satisfaction

After leaving Shanghai in 2002, Levine joined the Commerce Department as deputy assistant secretary for Asia. Along with his counterpart at the US Trade Representative, Levine was the lead negotiator for the US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT), a mechanism set up in 1983 to address bilateral trade and investment issues. The Strategic & Economic Dialogue, known as S&ED, did not exist at that time.

Levine said both sides knew that there was no magic bullet that would help JCCT get rid of all the problems. "Their economic systems were different, there were political issues in both countries," he said.

"Chinese leaders cannot say that we will get rid of SOEs (State-owned enterprises) tomorrow. It wasn't realistic," he said.

He said one has to go into it, understand that you could make progress on some small- or medium-sized issues, and that was the best you can do. He saw that progress on those small- and medium-sized issues could be very important for particular US companies or industries.

"So my feeling is that we made progress on some issues that were helpful and significant. (It) didn't change the world," Levine said.

Now a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm in Washington, Levine feels lucky for his decades of working with the Chinese.

He recalled that it was a genuine interest that got him into the China field in the first place, and not because he could go into business and make a lot of money. "As it turned out, China has become such an important country," he said.

"My overall feeling was satisfaction," he said of his career in the China-related field.

To Levine, there are certain things the two sides disagree on, and there is no point spending all the time arguing about them.

"Because we know we are not going to solve them, we are not going to make progress on them. So the challenge is how do you sit down and find the areas where you can reach an agreement and you can get something done," he said.

Having engaged in bilateral economic and trade relations with China for decades, Levine believes the ongoing negotiation for a Bilateral Investment Treaty is now the most important initiative between the two countries.

"It's tremendously important. If we can achieve a BIT which is of high quality, it will have both a very big economic impact in stimulating a lot of two-way investment," he said. "It will also lead to a positive influence on the overall economic relationship."

Levine finds joy working on US-China ties

Henry Levine, senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, talks to China Daily in the newspaper's Washington bureau. Chen Weihua / China Daily

(China Daily USA 11/07/2014 page10)

Most Popular
Hot Topics
The Week in Photos