November 8, 2015
Winter took a strong run at Beijing the past few days, starting with a slushy rain on Friday morning that made it quite clear to the green leaves still on the trees that resistance was futile. Rain turned to snow, a wind blasted in from the north. Nobody really wanted to go outside. The bike ride to work was absolutely miserable. Beijing drivers are awful on a good day. But, perhaps like China’s East China Sea ADIZ, maybe winter realized it had tried to take too much too fast. Now on Sunday afternoon there are a few shy rays of sunshine warming lucky windows, and the people on the streets took off their heavy scarves and hats. They are ready to put those warm hats on again at the first bluster of arctic wind. Like any place with three thousand years of social memory informed by an agrarian calendar, everyone knows that autumn inevitably gives way to winter.
Please excuse my occasional use of acronyms and historical/geographic references. I have to remind myself that not everyone has spent the past three or four months completely absorbed with the finer points of United States-China diplomatic relations in Southeast Asia. I suppose I should step back a moment, since I have failed to give you an update for so long. I finished my ten month intensive Chinese language course in Beijing last June, a wonderful and painful year of 8 hour, one on one days of language instruction. I’m honored that the U.S. State Department has the faith in me to make good use of this huge investment in an abstract skill, as I work to “advocate America’s interests and pursue mutually beneficial cooperation” here in China.
I spent a wonderful late June/early July breathing lots of Minnesota air, seeing big Minnesota summer clouds, getting hugs from family, road tripping with my sister and seeing friends. Then, it was back to Beijing to begin my three year assignment in the Political Affairs section at the U.S. Embassy here. And so here we are, the first few days of Beijing winter, enjoying some time at a coffee shop down an old alley near the historic Forbidden City, one of the greatest monuments to Chinese imperialism – which is across 长安街 (long peace street) from Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, ironically the most prominent monuments to the anti-imperialist Communist regime of today’s modern China.
In general, the political section at the Embassy is the group of diplomats tasked with explaining and advocating for America’s foreign policy, as well as making sure the top leadership at the Embassy, especially the Ambassador, is well informed so that he can do the same. That means a lot of conversations with a lot of people, from Chinese diplomats and leaders, journalists, Chinese scholars and opinion makers, business people, the guy on the street, to the diplomats of other countries also working in Beijing. I try to understand China’s foreign policy objectives so that I can explain them to foreign policy makers in Washington, and give my analysis of what that means in a broader contexts in the hopes of helping Washington make even better policy. Most importantly is serving as the lines of communications between the U.S. and China, on many levels, in the hopes of avoiding misunderstanding. In my mind, avoid misunderstanding, and we can avoid conflict. Misunderstanding leads to mistrust leads to trying to get an advantage at the expense of the other, which is dangerous. Or something like that…
Each person in the political section focuses on one specific area, and I am responsible for being the “expert” in China’s and the U.S.’s policy as it relates to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Which, if you’ve followed the news lately, is one of the topics that never really leaves the headlines. Which partly explains my infrequent emails these days… There is the occasional late night or early morning, not a little stress, and the frustrating knowledge that there is always one more thing you could be digging into.
This job has been one of the most intense, challenging and enjoyable endeavors I’ve ever taken on. My colleagues here all inspire me with their intelligence and work ethic. Working on diplomacy in China these days often feels like a futile endeavor, and occasionally you feel like you’ve contributed to making something really awesome happen. The longer I’m in China and the more I learn about it, the harder it seems to try to make sense of what is going to happen in the near and long-term future. I am convinced that I am in a very important place at a very important time, playing a small part in something that is leaving a mark on history. Not to be dramatic, of course.
It’s important to step back on occasion, though, to understand, but not get caught up with the individual elements of this puzzle like “ADIZ’s” and “FONOPS” and “CUES.” (if you really want to know, feel free to ask me [or Google it…]). And, to step back and remember my friends and family who I don’t talk to nearly enough these days.
I miss you, and I think of you all often.
As always, my home in Beijing is open to you.
Ted Andy Meinhover
Getting my bike tire fixed at one of the mobile bike stations that spring up at busy intersections.
A busride on a recent vacation to rural Guizhou province in southern china.
A bike ride past the Forbidden City on a sunny day in Beijing a few months ago