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Representing America

Branstad recalls his time as ambassador to China

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Terry Branstad discusses his experiences as the American ambassador to China during an interview Monday. He was the ambassador from May 2017 until Oct. 4.

Terry Branstad had been the American ambassador to China for just a few days when he arrived at a city along the border with North Korea to learn more about the tense situation there.

North Korea had recently test-fired some missiles, and neither the United States nor China was happy about it. According to Branstad, China wants nuclear materials removed form North Korea just like the U.S. does.

“They have apprehension about North Korea as well,” Branstad said Monday during an exclusive interview with The Messenger. “They’re very concerned about their aggressive approach.”

The North Korean situation was just one of many that Branstad, a former governor-turned-diplomat, dealt with during his three years and four months as ambassador. He was there when the outbreak of COVID-19 forced most of the diplomatic staff to return to the United States. He was also on hand when significant progress in trade talks resulted in China buying record amounts of American corn, pork, beef and chicken.

“It was an interesting and challenging job and I was very proud to represent the United States of America and President Trump,” he said.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor who served for about three years as the American ambassador to China, talks about his experiences there during an interview Monday.

“I knew this was a tough assignment, but I couldn’t think of anything more important for our country than to represent us in our biggest rival, our biggest competitor and the second largest economy in the world,” he added.

President Donald Trump picked Branstad to be the American ambassador because of his connection with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which dates to his time as governor of Iowa.

“Because we have this long relationship and because I hosted him on his first trip to America back in 1985, he calls us ‘old friends,'” Branstad said.

The Senate confirmed Branstad’s appointment on May 23, 2017. He arrived in China on June 27, 2017.

The completion of what’s called the Phase I trade agreement with China was perhaps the biggest success during his tenure. He said that in addition to prompting China to buy more American farm goods, the deal also enforces intellectual property rights and opens the Chinese market to some financial service businesses.

“It’s a very detailed agreement,” he said.

Branstad said that after COVID-19 broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the government’s response made the situation worse.

“Some doctors detected it, but local officials stopped them from reporting it,” he said. “Precious time was lost.”

He said in China, people are afraid to report bad news.

“They blame the person that reports it instead of thanking the person for identifying a problem,” Branstad said.

He said that once the government realized how bad COVID-19 was, it reacted very firmly to stop its spread. The delay was costly, however, and COVID-19 became a pandemic.

No American diplomats got sick, but about three-quarters of the embassy staff returned to the United States.

In Beijing, Branstad and his family lived in the official ambassador’s residence, about 20 miles from the embassy. The embassies of Brazil, Britain and Greece were nearby, as were the homes of the Indian and Colombian ambassadors.

Branstad would be driven to the embassy every working day. His days were filled with meetings with business leaders, government officials and educators.

The vice minister of foreign affairs was his regular contact in the Chinese government.

Branstad acknowledged that he had some difficult conversations with Chinese officials. For example, twice he went to the Foreign Ministry to formally object to China’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

While there was no fear of crime in Beijing, there was always the sense that the communist government was watching and listening, according to Branstad.

“The surveillance is unbelievable,” he said. “You figure everything you say, even in your residence, is being overheard by the Chinese.”

He said in the embassy there is a room heavily protected from such eavesdropping. To get there, people have to go through multiple doors. The room is used for sensitive discussions and phone calls to Washington.

While the Chinese government may seem menacing, the Chinese people don’t have any animosity toward the United States, according to Branstad.

“Generally, the Chinese people have good feelings about America,” he said.

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