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'Library Diplomacy': How Chi Wang helped build US-China ties

By Zhao Huanxin in Washington | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-28 23:37
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Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation and a former head of the Asian Division at the US Library of Congress, poses in front of the Jefferson Building in Washington in 2012. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The year 2019 is special for Chi Wang, the former head of the US Library of Congress Chinese collection.

It was three score and a decade ago that he first left China for the United States, and his US-China Policy Foundation is preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

It's also a half-century ago that he earned a PhD in history from Georgetown University, where he has served as an adjunct professor.

It was 40 years ago in December 1979, when American librarians visited Beijing for the first time, an event Wang helped to organize over several years, which ultimately happened months after the two countries established diplomatic relations.

Prior to the librarians' tour, Wang, with the approval of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, made a secret academic visit to China in mid-1972, the same year the historic "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" was staged.

Both events turned out to have contributed to the establishment of the bilateral relationship.

"Looking into the future, I believe cultural exchanges and people-to-people diplomacy is indispensable in order for the China-US relationship to make greater progress," Wang, now in his late 80s, said in an interview with China Daily.

Wang's father was a high-ranking official in China's Nationalist government between the 1920s and 1940s. He came of age in the US after arriving in 1949, never to see his parents again.

He made friends with such historical figures as "Young Marshal Zhang Xueliang" (who is known for co-launching the 1936 Xi'an Incident), cultivated a special friendship with Mayling Soong — one of the most influential women of the 20th century — from 1994 to 2003, and met with then-Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping during his 1979 US tour.

Over the past decades, he has dedicated himself to improving China-US exchanges and relations, both as an academic and librarian.

A prolific writer, Wang has written several books, mostly on China-US relations. Those include America & China since 1945, George W. Bush and China: Policies, Problems, and Partnership, and most remarkably, A Compelling Journey from Peking to Washington, a memoir also popular in China after its Chinese version was published in 2012.

He also founded the Washington Journal of Modern China, a semiannual publication.

To fully appreciate Wang's influence on promoting US-China understanding, J. Stapleton Roy, US ambassador to China between 1991 and 1995, recalled at a seminar in March in Washington that he was much indebted to "Dr Wang", a friend who taught him Chinese in the evenings when he studied at Georgetown in the early 1960s, which paved the way to his becoming a diplomat.

The seminar — China Relations at 40: Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of Normalization — was sponsored by the US-China Policy Foundation, an educational policy organization that Wang and his American friends, including former ambassadors John Holdridge and Arthur W. Hummel, co-founded in 1995.

"This year is 2019 —I came here in 1949 as a student, and for so many years, I'm still here," Wang joked at the discussion. "But I'm happy I can do something to promote the understanding between Chinese and American people."

Before Beijing and Washington normalized relations, there had been no book exchange between the two sides. As the icy tensions began to thaw, there was a rising need in the US for enhancing understanding of China.

Wang started to work at the Library of Congress in 1958. In late 1968, after obtaining authorization from the library, he sent a letter to the National Beijing Library, now the National Library of China, proposing a book-exchange program between the two nations.

Wang didn't receive a reply from Beijing, but in late 1971, he received an invitation to visit the mainland while he was on leave from the Library of Congress, to serve as director of a new library at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After a half-year delay, Kissinger approved Wang's China trip.

The reason for the delay, Wang would later explain, was that President Richard Nixon had to go to China first, before private citizens could. Nixon visited China in February 1972 and signed the historic Shanghai Communique the day before he left China.

"My trip was sponsored by the Department of State and the Library of Congress," Wang wrote in his 2011 memoir. "While in the PRC, I was to establish a book exchange with the PRC. In addition, the United States wanted to establish a cultural exchange between the United States and China."

With the June 1972 trip, Wang helped arrange for a dozen Chinese librarians — the first non-scientific Chinese delegation — to visit the United States the next September. Nixon met with the Chinese librarians at the White House.

Wang then helped organize a return tour of American librarians to China in December 1979.

Wang received a letter on March 13, 1973, from the White House, which conveyed thanks from Kissinger for his report on his China trip.

"I note from your trip report that you were able to visit many of the interesting cities of China, including well-known universities and libraries," John Holdridge, senior staff member of the National Security Council, said in the letter, according to Wang's memoir.

"I would like you to know that your efforts in furthering Sino-American cultural exchanges are very much appreciated," it said.

Partly due to the enhanced exchange between libraries, during his tenure at the Library of Congress, Wang was able to build up the library's Chinese collection from 300,000 to 1.1 million volumes by the time he retired in 2004, Wang said in his 2009 book My Years at the Library of Congress.

Wang, now president of the US-China Policy Foundation, is still active in public diplomacy. He said the organization would host a seminar later this year in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

"Although some Americans are concerned that China's rise poses a threat to America's economic security, I do not believe that that will happen," Wang wrote in his memoir.

"If China and the United States understand each other's cultures and histories, we can work together to make a better world," he said.

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