US expert on China finds job 'rewarding'

Updated: 2013-10-17 00:31

By ZHANG YUWEI in New York (China Daily)

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Video by Hu Haidan/China Daily

Former diplomat lauds changes in the nation since its opening-up

When Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, started learning Mandarin in 1970 at Harvard College, he never imagined the decision would change the rest of his life and lead him to become one of the most respected China hands in the United States today.

Orlins, 63, said his motivation to study Chinese back then was 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," Orlins said.

A former diplomat, lawyer, banker and investor, Orlins now leads the committee full time, working on a number of programs that promote a "constructive relationship" between the world's two largest economies — work that he calls "very rewarding".

"It was my dream at the very beginning to make a contribution to society and to the people, and to the (US-China) relationship," said Orlins, who has led the committee since 2005.

Most of Orlins' career has had something to do with China. In the 1970s, after receiving his law degree at Harvard Law School, Orlins served on the US State Department's legal team that helped establish diplomatic relations with China.

In 1979, a year after China began its economic reforms, Orlins moved to China and worked for the Beijing municipal government, teaching contract law and interacting with midlevel government officials, some of whom are still his friends.

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, he served as a managing director at Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong.

In 1992, Orlins was the Democrat nominee for US Congress from New York's 3rd Congressional District, losing by "very little", or about 8,000 out of 241,000 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 done," said Orlins, who likes to compare what he saw when he first visited China in the late 1970s to what he sees today.

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

Orlins has also witnessed the transformation in the lives of his Chinese friends. "They've done it through hard work, through fine education and through a vision of what China will become," he said.

On a trip to China during National Day when he passed through Shenzhen and saw the big crowds, Orlins was reminded of his first visit to the city in the 1980s when local officials showed him the rice paddy field in the city where they would develop a "special economic zone".

"I just thought, ‘It's not possible'", recalled Orlins, "but here today, Shenzhen is now a first-world city."

The question of "what's next" for China concerns many China watchers, as slower growth 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".

"It's not easy to do. The question really is: How you sequence it?" he said, adding that financial reforms such as liberalization of banking is an important part of Chinese economic reform.

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