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A life devoted to China-US ties

By Zhang Yuwei in New York | China Daily USA | Updated: 2013-10-16 11:21
A life devoted to China-US ties

When Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on US-China Relations, started learning Mandarin in 1970 at Harvard College, he never imagined that decision would impact the rest of his life and lead him to becoming one of the most reputable China hands in the US today.

Orlins, 63, recalled 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," said Orlins.

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 '70s, after receiving his law degree at Harvard, Orlins served on the legal team at the US Department of State that helped establish diplomatic relations with China.

In 1979, Orlins moved to China and worked for the Beijing municipal government to teach contract law - a year after China started its economic reforms - where he interacted with mid-level government officials, some of whom he is still friends with today.

From the mid '80s to the early '90s, he served as a managing director at Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong.

In 1992, Orlins was the Democrat nominee for the US Congress from New York's Third Congressional District, losing by "very little", he recalled, several thousand out of some 300,000 votes. After that he went into private equity and worked on deals throughout Asia.

"As I look back in 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 '70s to what he sees today.

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

Orlins has also witnessed the transformations 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 recent trip to China during National Day passing through Shenzhen, seeing the busy crowds Orlins was reminded of his first visit to the city in the 1980s when local officials showed him the rice paddies in the city, which they would develop into 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 number two 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 liberalization of banking is an important part of economic reform in China.

Orlins' commitment to fostering a constructive relationship between the US and China has - as he puts it - "defined" his life. A strong personal connection to China also included his decision to adopt a Chinese daughter 26 years ago in Beijing.

"If I had not studied Chinese, I can't think of what the other path I would have been on," said Orlins. "It's defined where I lived, it's defined my views of the world, and it's defined who my friends are."

Orlins' work at the 47-year-old NCUSCR includes creating programs that bring together experts from both countries to interact and educate Americans and Chinese about each other's countries. Existing programs include organizing US-China teacher exchanges and sending Congressional delegations on tours of China.

The committee's heavyweight event every year is the annual gala where it does fundraising to support its programs. Orlins said this year's gala - scheduled for Wednesday Oct 16 - is "star-studded", featuring high-profile figures from political and business circles, including Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, Sun Guoxiang, consul general of China in New York, Liu Jieyi, China's permanent representative to the United Nations, Tian Jiaxuan, a former State Councilor, as well as leaders from American and Chinese corporations.

The gala will also receive two congratulatory letters from President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping.

"This is just the continuation of a long story of trying to promote a constructive US-China relationship," said Orlins.

As a tradition for the gala, Orlins will kick off the event with a speech - which he said will weaves quotes from two of historic figures he likes - Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy (for whom he once worked) - as well as the Chinese Dream proposed by President Xi.

"It will be about what my dream is for US-China relations," said Orlins.


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