Kissinger, Cold War, China, Air Force One and Russian borderland adventures. Morton Holbrook III was there for the opening of the Middle Kingdom.
Chinatown, NYC. In the bankrupt, gritty and violent Big Apple, one young man caught the China bug. He joined the State Department and then, in 1977, with the Kuomintang dictatorship in the height of its power, Morton Holbrook III went to “America’s China”. Mao had died the year before, setting into motion a series of events that would see everything change.
Among the first
Mr Holbrook’s career as a diplomat started when he was assigned to the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s office as an assistant to Kissinger’s former personal attorney, Undersecretary of State Carlyle Maw, in 1975. His first foreign assignment came two years later when he was appointed economic officer in the American embassy to The Republic of China in Taipei. “That was our China in those days,” Mr Holbrook recalls.
He arrived somewhat armed with some skills in the world’s last pictorial language. It was the Chinese language’s distinctiveness from Western languages that caught his initial attention when he first visited Chinatown in New York City. He later acquired a master’s degree in Far Eastern studies from the University of Michigan where he took 12 courses in Chinese language, among others, classical Chinese, documents in the Qing Dynasty and the writings of Lu Xun, a great political commentator and leading figure of the modern Chinese literature. According to Mr Holbrook, that was some fifty years ago. “I’m still studying Chinese – it’s a never-ending challenge!” he says.
Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s rise made the new China more acceptable – and Taiwan less important. Following the announcement of Sino-American normalisation by President Jimmy Carter and Premier Hua Guofeng in December 1978, it was decided that an embassy would be set up in Beijing. There could be only one China, and the mission in Taipei was downgraded to become the American Institute in Taiwan. Mr Holbrook was among the first to resume his post in the ‘new’ Embassy to China, in Beijing, in March, 1979.
The first encounter with Deng Xiaoping in January, during Deng’s visit in 1979 to Washington DC, turned out to be a special challenge for Mr Holbrook and his colleagues. “Our Chinese language teachers were from Beijing, so we kind of picked up a Beijing accent.” Mr Holbrook says, “So when Deng spoke in a Sichuan accent, we couldn’t understand a word he was saying! That was kind of a shock, but a very educational one. We later realized there are many, many accents in China, and the leadership reflected that diversity of accents and origins.”
Later, over the next four years between 1979 and 1983, Mr Holbrook would have many opportunities to listen to that Sichuan accent in Beijing as high-level official visitors from the United States came one after another to explore the newly opened China and to meet with the mastermind behind it (he missed the 1984 Reagan visit). Many bilateral agreements were signed in the first few years of the normalisation, among which was the China-US Consular Convention, with drafting assistance from Mr Holbrook, facilitated his law degree.
“The negotiation itself was not very tough, but we spent a lot of time explaining to the Chinese side why such a bilateral convention was desirable as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was just back in action with the wider world after the ten years of the Cultural Revolution.” Mr Holbrook adds, “The US and China also signed a science and technology agreement, a cultural agreement, a maritime agreement, a trade agreement and many more. There were also issues unresolved – even till now – such as arm sales to Taiwan, but our policy was to acknowledge and discuss frankly the differences between us and move ahead in areas of mutual benefit.” The August 17, 1982 U.S.-China Communiqué on Arms Sales to Taiwan saw a vague commitment by the US to reducing arms sales to Taiwan over time, with different sides taking away from it what they needed – China perceiving a stronger commitment to the One-China policy and the Americans a commitment by China to reduce its belligerency towards Taiwan.
Vodka fuelled ice-breaking
After six years working back in Washington DC, Mr Holbrook was again assigned a post in China in 1990, this time as Consul General in Shenyang, the provincial capital of Liaoning in Northeast China.
“When I first got there, there were two other consulates, namely Japan and North Korea, so effectively, in terms of contacts, there was only one [consulate], which was Japan,” Mr Holbrook says. About the time of the end of Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to set up their own Consulate in Shenyang and assigned a Soviet Consul General who, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ended up almost immediately becoming the Consul General of Russia. The Russians chose Shenyang for a Consulate because it was the leading city in China’s Northeast region, which borders on the Soviet Union. “So one of my first priorities back then was to establish a relationship with my Russian counterpart.”
Mr Holbrook’s tenure in Shenyang did not lack for excitement either as he became one of the first third country officials to travel to the new Russia from China by crossing the border in Heilongjiang Province.
“We travelled from Hei He to Blagoveshchensk. There was no bridge along the entire Heilongjiang River, so we took a Chinese jeep and drove over the frozen river in winter. We were warmly welcomed by the Russian officials on the other side,” Mr Holbrook says, recalling a tired but happy return trip as the one-day visit was filled with vodka at several Russian Government offices.
Hong Kong came into play when Mr Holbrook was appointed to the US Embassy in Beijing from 1996 to 1999. In 1998, President Bill Clinton made an eight-day visit to China, the first US president to do so since the Tiananmen Massacre. “I accompanied President Clinton to Peking University, where he spoke before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds of Chinese students,” Mr Holbrook says. “He was very folksy, answering questions in a casual manner, walking around in the room, gesturing, clearly enjoying the occasion. No one can work a crowd, especially a crowd of students, better than Bill Clinton, whether in China, the US, or anywhere!” Otherwise, no sign of Clinton fraternising with the locals.
“The visit showed that the US understood that China was back on track,” says Mr Holbrook. “The President’s last stop was Hong Kong, with Air Force One being the first passenger plane to land in the territory’s new Chek Lap Kok International Airport. It symbolised the US’s support for ‘One Country, Two Systems’, and its support for Hong Kong’s continuing viability under that framework.”
During the period Mr Holbrook was also a colleague of the current American Consul General to Hong Kong, Clifford Hart, in the Political Section of the Embassy. He commented that then, as now, Mr Hart was an “outstanding US diplomat!”
Because of his legal background, he was also the Embassy’s representative to the American Chamber of Commerce’s law committee. He worked with the Amcham committee to provide comments to a National People’s Congress committee on China’s draft contract law.
Given his vast experience in Chinese affairs, Mr Holbrook was naturally seen as the ‘China-watcher’ even when he was serving in other foreign service posts in Tokyo, Manila and finally in Paris where he concluded his diplomatic career on December 31, 2006.
“Upon my retirement, I had a choice between teaching part-time in France and taking an offer by the State Department as a temporary consultant, or a WAE, which is a short form of ‘When Actually Employed’, at the US Consulate in Hong Kong.” He chose Hong Kong, and, after a few months at the Consulate, met Glenn Shive, the then executive director of the HKAC – Mr Holbrook’s current post since 2013. Through Dr Shive’s introduction, Mr Holbrook was hired by the United International College (UIC) in Zhuhai, a branch of Hong Kong Baptist University. He was named head of the new Government and International Relations Programme, where he taught courses on US-China relations, Chinese Foreign Policy, US Foreign Policy, International Law, and the Chinese Legal System from 2007 to 2012.
Spending most of his time working abroad meant that he did not have the chance to catch up with the latest American trends. “I didn’t know there was a TV series called ‘House of Cards’ until a friend of mine mentioned it to me. I also learnt much American pop-culture from my Chinese students,” Mr Holbrook laughed. “But in general moving back to the ‘civilian’ life has not been particularly tough for me.”
Neither has Mr Holbrook quit the diplomatic community entirely. The HKAC recently co-hosted the ‘Understanding Paris 2015 – UN Climate Change Conference’ for university students, with the representatives of the EU Office as well as the American, Japanese, French, Indian and Philippines Consulates participating in it.
“You can say that I took advantage of my diplomatic experience. But I wasn’t shy about asking these people.” Mr Holbrook says, “I was a Consul General myself and I know what you do as a Consul General.”
Advising fellow diplomats, Mr Holbrook picks NGOs to be his post-retirement occupation of choice. For the former diplomat who never stops learning, there is also another way: “Teaching is great too!”