In 1998, during my last year as a volunteer, I didn’t notice two national developments that later proved to be significant. One was the system of Internet restrictions that became known in English as the Great Firewall. The other was a speech delivered by President Jiang Zemin, at Peking University, on May 4, 1998. Jiang’s words were hardly dynamic (“the future of the motherland is infinitely glorious”), but, more than twenty years later, if you say “Project 985,” many educated Chinese people recognize the reference to the year and the month of Jiang’s speech. The President called for the development of world-class universities, and this endeavor joined Project 211—the Chinese fetish for mission-oriented numerology exceeds even that of the Peace Corps. These programs involved university expansion and improvement, and they reflected a strategy that was hard for Americans to grasp: the idea that education and restriction could proceed in tandem.
During the period that followed, the country’s over-all growth was so intense that Peace Corps cohorts could be represented by micro-histories. The year that China 8 arrived, the country joined the World Trade Organization. By China 12, the Three Gorges Dam had been completed. China 14 was the Beijing Olympics. Between China 1 and China 16, the G.D.P. increased more than tenfold. When I taught in Fuling, the college had about two thousand students; by China 10, there were twenty thousand, on a brand-new campus.
In the classroom, even smaller histories showed how the system worked at the lowest level. One of my students, a poor boy who grew up on a farm, where his family planted potatoes, corn, and tobacco, took the English name Mo. Mo’s father had a third-grade education and his mother never attended school, but a village schoolteacher inspired Mo, who became the only boy from his class to test into college. In Fuling, he joined the Communist Party, and every summer he returned home to haul sixty-pound sacks of tobacco to market. When some of Mo’s classmates started giving themselves English surnames, he asked Adam and me for advice, which was how he became Mo Money. (Another China 3 micro-history was the series of prominent deaths that occurred in the span of six months and that, at least in my mind, are forever connected: Tupac Shakur, Deng Xiaoping, and Biggie Smalls.)
After graduation, Mo Money accepted a teaching job in his rural home town. Among the students was his younger brother. It was the community version of education by the bootstraps: somebody escapes the village to attend college, then returns and pulls up the others. For three years, Mo taught his brother and more than forty classmates, and his brother tested into the Fuling college, too. He entered as China 8 arrived. Of the four children in Mo Money’s family, three graduated from college, and all are now middle class.
When this happens at scale across a population of more than a billion, the effects are staggering. Mo currently teaches in a school in Chongqing, and recently I asked him what percentage of his graduating students from last year made it to university. “Every one of them,” he said. In terms of national statistics, the college-entrance figure—seven per cent for Mo’s year—is now forty-eight per cent.
The Peace Corps China groups started to expand with China 4, which was also the first cohort to include an African-American volunteer. There were significantly more women than men that year, and that became the general pattern. In 2014, the Peace Corps started allowing applicants to specify which country or region they wanted to work in, and China became a coveted assignment. Yung-Mei Haloski, a China 4 volunteer who later worked in recruitment and placement for the Peace Corps, told me that China was seen as a top priority. “I was always directed that the people who had the most skills should go to China,” she said.
By China 17, the Peace Corps was sending between seventy and eighty volunteers per year, and the program had expanded into undeveloped parts of Gansu and Guizhou provinces. But some volunteers went to Sichuanese cities that had become much more connected and sophisticated. Chengdu acquired the nickname Gaydu, because of a relative tolerance for gay culture that would have been unimaginable during the days of “Survey of Britain and America.” (“It widely spreads.”) With China 21, the Peace Corps sent a same-sex married couple for the first time.
In August, 2018, Jody Olsen, the Peace Corps director appointed by President Trump, came to China to celebrate the program’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The Peace Corps hoped to move into even more remote places, and Olsen and Stephen Claborne, the head of the China program, met with officials in Beijing. The Chinese politely rejected the request. “The message was that they were happy with it the way it was,” Claborne told me recently.
The Chinese strategy never changed: education and restriction continued in parallel, like opposite lanes of the same highway. Today’s citizens are often more tolerant and aware, but the Great Firewall is also more sophisticated than ever. Many topics of civic interest, ranging from the Hong Kong protests to concentration camps that sequester Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, are highly censored. Even as the government became more comfortable with the Peace Corps, it restricted other organizations, and a 2017 law made it increasingly difficult for foreign N.G.O.s to operate. If you connect all the micro-histories—each individual improvement in material and educational circumstance—they still don’t add up to political change. Mo Money remains a member of the Communist Party.
In 2018, during a visit to Fuling, I happened to run into my first-year student Richard. Like Mo, Richard has prospered as a high-school teacher. During our conversation, he quickly brought up the lecture about absentee ballots. “That made a deep impression,” he said. “I’ve always thought about that.”
Recently, a couple of other former students also mentioned the incident in positive terms, which surprised me. I had thought of it as a clumsy attempt by two young teachers to deal with a frustrating political environment. Even now, I can’t tell exactly what lessons the students took away. I occasionally send survey questions to the people I taught, and in 2017 I asked if China should become a multiparty democracy. Out of thirty respondents, twenty-two said no. “China is going well this way,” one former student wrote. Others were more cynical. “We already have one corrupt party, it will be much worse if we have more,” one man wrote. Another student remarked, “We have seen America with multi-party, but you have elected the worst president in human’s history.”
Rick Scott began demanding an end to Peace Corps China in the summer of 2019. “What the Peace Corps shouldn’t be doing is propping up our adversaries with U.S. tax dollars,” the Senator said, in a statement. Such criticism had also been made in 2011, by Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado. Scott introduced a bill that would cancel programs “in hostile countries, like China,” and place the Peace Corps under the oversight of the State Department.
The agency has always functioned independently within the executive branch, in part to prevent programs from being manipulated as direct tools of foreign policy. No other senators signed on to Scott’s bill, but he continued to attack the Peace Corps and China. His criticism of both seemed to be recent. Before entering politics, Scott reportedly amassed a fortune of more than two hundred million dollars as an entrepreneur in the health-care industry. In two terms as governor of Florida, from 2011 to 2019, Scott welcomed Chinese investors to the state, and he chaired Enterprise Florida, a pro-business consortium that has offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. A blind trust held by the Governor included stocks with ties to Chinese companies.