Government

Xi still an 'old friend,' but Branstad worried by China's authoritarian drift

Former Iowa governor reflects on three years of being ambassador

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, then the new U.S. ambassador to China, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping Aug. 1
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, then the new U.S. ambassador to China, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping Aug. 17, 2017, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, right, takes his seat. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
/

SOLON — He still calls him “old friend,” but former U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad is disappointed in the direction China has moved under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

“I will say that the personal relationship, I think, has been very good,” said Branstad, who recently returned to Iowa after more than three years as the ambassador to China.

The two first met in 1885 when Branstad was governor and Xi was a county-level Chinese official leading an agriculture delegation to Iowa.

Last week, during a campaign appearance with Republican candidates in Solon, the former Iowa governor spoke warmly of a Xi’s welcoming him to China with a personal and private audience. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, also hosted a dinner for Branstad, his wife, Christie, and their family.

“To the best of my knowledge and in talking to people at the embassy, that had never been done before for one of our ambassadors,” he said.

Despite the friendship and accomplishments in trade and law enforcement, Branstad called serving as ambassador “one of the most challenging and difficult assignments.”

It was made more difficult by the increasingly authoritarian actions of the communist government under Xi, he said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“The action they’ve taken against the people in Hong Kong ... mistreatment of the Uighurs, I think is unconscionable,” Branstad said, referring to the Muslim minority in northwest China. “So I did have discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express our objections.”

It was not a one-way conversation. The Chinese government let Branstad know of its objections to U.S. actions.

As ambassador, Branstad focused on critical issues such as trade, helping get China’s support for sanctions on North Korea and helping obtain cooperation from China to make fentanyl a controlled substance.

“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to get that accomplished and we’re still working with them on law enforcement on those issues,” he said.

Reaching agreement on Phase 1 of a trade pact already is paying benefits for Iowa farmers, Branstad said. Though a comprehensive trade deal with China has not been reached, China recently made record purchases of corn, soybeans, pork, beef and chicken. Branstad said it also committed to opening up more opportunities for insurance and financial services and for protecting intellectual property rights.

“It was quite a long and difficult ordeal to get that agreement but it’s making a real difference,” Branstad said. “For the first time we really had an agreement that is committed to fairness and reciprocity and trade, something that was long overdue.”

China is the United States’ biggest rival as the second-largest economy in the world but at the same time “they are also a huge market.”

Branstad said he left his post with respect for the Chinese people, who he found to be “hardworking; they’re very committed to education and their families.”

However, he was disappointed in that government’s response to the novel coronavirus.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“I really think their system is a real problem,” Branstad said about Chinese officials whose secretiveness, he said, led to an attempt to cover up COVID-19. “People at the local level that discover something that’s bad are afraid to tell people in Beijing, because they know what will happen in their system — they get fired, they get punished.”

As a result of the COVID-19 spread, he believed China has lost credibility “because not only did this happen, but they also then tried to blame the American military, the Europeans and other people for it. So that is a tragic thing. And its impact cost a lot of lives throughout the world. And it’s obviously caused a lot of economic damage throughout the world.

As ambassador, he oversaw the evacuation of 1,100 State Department personnel as the virus spread. All have returned to China now. They underwent testing before leaving the United States when they arrived back in China and again 14 days later, he said. Only two tested positive for COVID-19.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.