Observation: China Council through changing executive leadership, changing times
By Wen Liu Feb. 20, 2017
With the announcement on Feb. 15 of the appointment of Mercy Kuo as its new president, the Washington State China Relations Council finally began its next chapter, ending six months vacancy of this position.
As someone who wrote the book “Connecting Washington and China--The Story of the Washington State China Relations Council,” my mind goes back to all of Council’s previous executive directors, the very different times they were in and ways they embodied and defined the Council.
Robert Kapp, the founding executive director, was the pioneer. China relations were brand-new, “uncharted waters” as he called them. Yet he threw in his lot. Starting from zero, he recruited Council’s first 50 members, including Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, in 1980. With a familiarity of Sichuan, both from his doctorate work in modern Chinese history and the reputation of Deng Xiaoping, a Sichuan native, who had visited Seattle in 1979, Kapp helped establish Washington-Sichuan sister state relations. His exemplar leadership at the Council propelled him onto the presidency of the US-China Business Council.
Bill Abnett, in addition to his Foreign Service years at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, worked close to the top decision-making of U.S. China policy as the chief China negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative under President Reagan. However, Abnett had to lead the Council out of the agonizing aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, which almost “killed” the Council, he once said. Before a Congressional hearing, he argued how continued MFN trade status for China would benefit not only Washington companies but ordinary people of China who did nothing wrong.
Eden Woon, Council’s first Chinese-speaking, Chinese-American executive director, was once a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later China advisor in the office of the Secretary of Defense. At the Council, Woon worked and traveled hard in this and the other Washington, lobbying the Congress to extend China’s MFN trade status, even to give China permanent MFN. Woon also had to calm the members in 1995 when China recalled its ambassador to the U.S. and fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait to protest the U.S. over issuing a visa to Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui.
Joe Borich, the longest-serving executive director/later president, had been the U.S. Consul General in Shanghai. At the Council, however, he had a different mission: promoting China’s membership into the WTO. The NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and the Battle of Seattle riot against the WTO Conference, both in 1999, didn’t help. But China’s actual accession into the WTO in 2001 challenged the Council even more, with all the MFN lobbying behind it: its relevance. It took a watershed meeting for Borich and the board to refocus Council’s priority to serving its members.
Kristi Heim, the first female executive director/later president, was once an award-winning China-focused journalist. Compared with the more turbulent years of U.S.-China relations her predecessors had guided the Council through, Heim led Council in “peace and prosperity,” topped with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Seattle in 2015. Heim, however, made effort and succeeded in increasing the Council membership among Chinese companies, bringing in a new generation of business and nonprofit leaders to the Council, and forming new ties for Seattle with Shenzhen and Hangzhou.
Now Mercy Kuo, the second female and second Chinese American in this formerly executive director now president position, who came as a China analyst. With her multilingual, especially Chinese language, ability, her appointment tells the Council’s intention to further expand its reach into the Chinese-speaking business world in both Washington and China. Now with new uncertainties and possibilities in U.S.-China relations, it’s Mercy Kuo's turn, together with T. Andrew Wilson as the Council chairman, with his vast China business experience, to embody and define the Council in 2017 and beyond.
(For more information on Washington State China Relations Council, go to WA China Nonprofits and Council website. For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)