Feature: John Holden's sharing of 4 decades' rewarding experience about China

Source: Xinhua| 2021-12-04 22:53:34|Editor: huaxia
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (Xinhua) -- When John Holden's father favored his son's decision to learn Chinese in 1971 as "a great idea," the 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis wasn't so convinced himself.

Though his father said Chinese was going to be very useful someday, there was no business between the United States and China, despite some signs of a thaw in their relations at that time.

"Of course, fathers are always right. And he proved to be right about that," said Holden, now a leading U.S. expert on China with over four decades experience in business, diplomacy and education, in a recent interview with Xinhua.


Holden was the president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations from 1998 to 2005. The role enabled him to lead dialogues and manage exchange programs on topics ranging from security and environment to public health and education between the Untied States and China.

In 2017, he received an award from China's State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs for his "Outstanding Service and Contribution to Education in China" when he was the associate dean at Peking University's Yenching Academy and professor at its Guanghua School of Management.

Holden's father was an educator and a WWII veteran who loved to travel. He believed the world ultimately was a small place and that there would be interaction between people. "He figured China's a large country. It's going to be important. There wasn't a more complicated calculation than that," recalled Holden.

"I basically pursued my passion. Once I began learning Chinese, I wanted to become good at it. It's a hard language to learn," he said.

Holden earned his B.A. in Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Minnesota, and his M.A. in the same major from Stanford University.

"I continued from 1971 until I left Stanford in 1980, having completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the dissertation. During those nine years, I tried to learn more and more about classical Chinese, about Chinese poetry, novels, and of course, the modern Chinese language," he said.

"There's so much to learn ... but anyway, I don't have any regrets. I'm very pleased. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding," he said.

Holden got an unexpected opportunity to make his first trip to China in June 1974 when he was just graduating from college, and a series of people-to-people exchanges took place between the two countries following the "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" in 1971 and President Richard Nixon's dramatic trip to China in the spring of 1972.

Holden took the opportunity. He sold his double bass for 2,500 U.S. dollars to pay the trip.

"So that's how I got to China. I went with the group, arrived in Hong Kong and then traveled for three weeks in the mainland," said Holden, adding that the trip took him to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, Luoyang, Xi'an, Yan'an, and Beijing.

"It's difficult to understand any other country, but as you do understand some of the history, that makes it a lot easier," he said.


After leaving Stanford University, Holden went to work in Washington, D.C., for a translation company called ChinaTrans and was sent to Beijing in 1981.

Afterwards he worked as one interpreter for a National Geographic project, which took him to many places along the Yellow River as well as the Tibet Autonomous Region in southwestern China, and resulted in a 12-chapter book called Journey Into China.

"It came out in 1982. My involvement was approximately five months," said Holden, adding that "it was the best-selling book that National Geographic had ever published."

Holden learned a lot from his travel in China. He recalled that Beijing then was "still very quiet," and the Peking Hotel he stayed was one of the tallest buildings in Beijing in the early 1980s.

"There were basically no private cars. You could walk across Chang'an Avenue on the pedestrian walkway. There were police standing in the middle of the road giving directions," he went on.

"And I think people who didn't come to China until the 1990s don't fully appreciate how difficult the 1980s were," said Holden. "But we saw signs of progress that were very encouraging."

From 1986 to 1998, he was the chairman of the China branch of Cargill, a large multinational consulting company.

"What was interesting to me was to see how China found new ways of continued engagement with the world and opening up," said Holden.

China's reform and opening up started in the late 1978 has launched an ethos of development that led to the country's dramatic economic and social transformation.

"When given opportunities to pursue better education, to work hard and to see the results of your labor for a better life, the Chinese people responded. These successes bred more successes, and it became a positively reinforcing cycle," said Holden.

"One thing that is important, that a lot of people should understand, is that in my lifetime I've witnessed major changes in China and looking forward, between now and 2035, or now and 2049, the one thing that we can know for sure is that China will continue to change," he said.


As the world's two largest economies, the United States and China have to manage their differences and embrace fair competition and peaceful coexistence with each other, noted Holden.

"The world is really not a very big place. We have to live together on this planet. We need to create opportunities for people to live better lives. And the U.S. and China have their own responsibilities to their own people, but also to the world community," he said.

The two countries have to "figure out how to manage a very large portfolio of complicated issues" as "a lot of things have changed profoundly" over the 50 years since Henry Kissinger's visit to China in 1971, said Holden.

"This relationship is going to be difficult for a while. I don't know how long. What I'm hopeful for is that we gradually began to develop more areas of cooperation, we find a middle ground on some of these things; where we're not going to agree, we simply need to do a better job of communicating in a straightforward and productive way," he said.

It's "really essential" that "there has to be reliable communications" between the two countries on a diplomatic level as accurate knowledge and understanding lie at the heart of all successful foreign policy, he added.

A healthy and stable China-U.S. relationship serves the interests of both sides and the world as a whole, and the two countries are obliged to work out how to accommodate one another, he said.

"We need to make sure above all costs that we avoid a conflict, a real conflict. We have to maintain peace. That's super important. And we need to reassure each other about that," said Holden.

"The second thing we need to do is to make sure that the trading and economic relationship is as fair as it can be," he said. "On the global commons, like climate change, we should be working as hard as we can."

Moreover, educational exchanges between the two sides have enormous roles to play in strengthening the foundations of bilateral ties and nurturing the next generation of cultural ambassadors, said Holden, who most recently served as the president and CEO of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation.

The two countries should continue the existing programs, create new ones, and encourage young people to study and live for a significant time in each other's countries to gain in-depth exposure to two vastly different cultures, he said.

"Young people are a wonderful resource. I was so grateful that I had many years to work on educational exchange. Young people learn so quickly. They are so adaptable. They make true friendships," said Holden.

The two sides need to "create new ways" for people to get to know each other, to bring people together, he said.

On the future relationship between the United States and China, Holden said he is "realistic" rather than being "optimistic or pessimistic."

"If the U.S. and China cannot work together, I'm very pessimistic about the future. We just have to be able to manage our relationship well. But we have a lot of challenges. The world has a lot of challenges," he said.

Looking back at his China career that spans more than four decades, Holden felt he was "very, very fortunate."

"It has just been incredibly rich and rewarding for me, going back to my days as a student, developing friendships with people around the world, meeting my wife who is from France and shares an interest in China," he said.

"I look at the opportunity to head the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations as a big honor for me. There've been difficult times, but it's never been uninteresting. So, I feel quite pleased when I look back," he said.

Holden said if he were given an opportunity to choose what language to learn, he would still select Chinese.

"I feel very fortunate to have chosen what I did choose to study. I love learning Chinese. It's a wonderful language. I can't imagine doing anything different," he said. Enditem