Morton Holbrook, '72: Diplomatic to the Core

Appeared in Record issue: 
Spring 2009

The opening of the American embassy in Beijing in 1979 signaled the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the United States and China after years of estrangement. Among the first to staff that crucial American outpost was Foreign Service Officer Morton Holbrook III, ’72. Over the thirty years since then, in positions of increasing responsibility, Holbrook has participated in and observed the evolving relationship between what are now the world’s two most powerful nations.

Holbrook’s law degree helped him land a position on the legal staff of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as his first Foreign Service assignment. There, among other things, he crafted the format for the first human rights reports issued by the State Department—reports that he himself would later prepare regarding China from his embassy post. “Throughout my career, the training I received at the Law School helped qualify me for many significant opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he recalls.

In 1977 he was assigned to Taiwan, where he continued the process of learning Chinese that he had begun while acquiring a master’s in Far Eastern studies, and where he met his wife, Shao Pei. At the embassy in Beijing from 1979 to 1983, he participated in the momentous events that followed the historic reopening of diplomatic relations, helping to create formative bilateral agreements on a wide range of political, economic, and cultural topics. He had a major role in drafting and negotiating the Consular Convention, which set the rules for how each country must treat the other’s citizens and became the first U.S.-China treaty ratified by the Senate.

After some time back in the United States, he returned to China in 1990 as U.S. Consul General in Shenyang. “Being consul general is a good-news assignment,” he says. “The hard issues between countries are handled in embassies. In the consulates, work is normally directed at promoting friendly relations, not at resolving bilateral disputes.” The territory covered by his consulate included more than 100 million people, and as Holbrook recounts his experiences it seems clear that he accepted personal responsibility for promoting friendly relations with each one of them.

His third assignment in Beijing lasted from 1996 to 1999. He recounts with particular satisfaction an incident from President Clinton’s 1998 visit. “For this visit, our priority was to persuade the Chinese to televise live the President’s speech at Beijing University. The day before that speech, Clinton and [Chinese president] Jiang Zemin were scheduled to have a short press conference at the Great Hall of the People, with time for only a few questions. Instead, as the conference proceeded, Jiang took the initiative, and without being asked by reporters he made comments regarding Tibet, one of the most sensitive issues in the relationship. President Clinton, of course, responded with the U.S. perspective, and the two leaders launched into an unplanned, unscripted discussion of human rights—that was televised live inside China!”

Realistic about China’s shortcomings and about tensions within the bilateral relationship, Holbrook also has a nearly unique perspective for an American on how far things have come. He recalls: “There was hardly a trace of the outside world in Beijing when I first arrived. There were signs on every road out of the city stating ‘No Foreigners Beyond This Point’ in English, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese; now travel anywhere in China is virtually unimpeded. In 1979, foreign investment was banned; today China is the most popular place to invest in the world. There was no trade to speak of with the United States in 1979; today China is America’s number-two trading partner after Canada.”

“Overall,” he continues, “from a narrow relationship based on mutual antipathy toward the Soviet Union, we now have very broad relations, which have exhibited fundamental consistency for thirty years. Not perfection, but consistency.”

After a career that also included postings in New York, Washington, Tokyo, Manila, and Paris, Morton Holbrook is now embarked on a new adventure in China and a new way of contributing to bilateral relations. He serves on the faculty at United International College in Zhuhai, where he teaches courses on U.S.-China relations, international political economy, and the Chinese legal system.