On the morning of January 17th, shortly before I was scheduled to meet with a hundred and forty Peace Corps volunteers in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, there was an unexpected announcement that the China program was ending. The Peace Corps had first come to the country in 1993, and as a volunteer from the early years I had been asked to speak at an in-service training that the organization was holding in a hotel near where I live. But by the time I arrived nobody was in the mood for nostalgia. The American volunteers, most of whom were in their twenties, looked stunned; some were red-eyed from crying. At the back of the room, more than a dozen Chinese staff members stood with stoic expressions. They had given up some benefits of the Chinese system in order to work for the American agency. From the ceiling, somebody had hung a red propaganda-style banner, which proved that Americans could make their slogans every bit as tone-deaf as the ones in the People’s Republic. The banner said “Welcome to IST 2020: Be the Tree You Wish to See in the World.”
An American staff member greeted me with a pained look. She said something to the effect that the tree she wished to have seen was a tactful announcement, but Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, of Florida, had declared the closure of the China program on Twitter. “Rubio and Rick Scott wanted to take credit for it,” she said angrily.
The Peace Corps has sent more than thirteen hundred volunteers to China, and the agency, which is now active in sixty countries, has always been viewed as removed from political spats. The U.S. had never ended a Peace Corps program because of a diplomatic conflict, but the timing of the decision about China seemed suspicious. The coronavirus had yet to come to widespread attention, and the Senators, who had previously expressed doubts about a Chinese trade deal, tweeted the day after President Trump signed a Phase 1 economic agreement with China.