House Intelligence Committee Echoing John F. Kennedy’s Playbook

Image Courtesy of Chris Fenton
Reactivate the Mutual Educational & Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA) for China


Representative Jim Himes (D-CT) shares similar views with the late John F. Kennedy, telling reporters recently that traveling to China to have people-to-people exchange with Congress’s PRC counterparts will “foster more understanding between the world’s two largest economies and help defuse tensions with Beijing over Taiwan and other issues.” In fact, it’s exactly why the former president signed the Fulbright-Hays Act in 1961, enacting MECEA, stating “it marks full recognition by the Congress of the importance of a more comprehensive program of educational and cultural activities as a component of our foreign relations.” And, with regard to our current relationship with China, the use of JFK’s MECEA program can continue to help exactly what the Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee is hoping to avoid — War.


The Constitution prohibits federal government officials from accepting a gift from a foreign government without the consent of Congress. In the mid-1970s, Congress established a mechanism to allow a foreign government to fund the travel of U.S. federal employees on a cultural exchange program authorized under Section 108A of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA) through the U.S. Department of State. Foreign governments with approved MECEA Section 108A programs can invite and fund the participation of U.S. federal employees, including Members of Congress and congressional staff, for travel, lodging, meals, and activities as specified in their approved program. These expenses are to be paid by the sponsoring foreign government; no trip expenses may be paid by a private source.  In general, no funds or other support are provided by the U.S. government.


To show MECEA in action, flashback to the Conrad Hotel, Hong Kong, on August 29, 2019. The distinct, peppery odor of tear gas wafted through my hotel balcony overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Down below were riot police clashing with the city’s angry residents.


During the proceeding days, several had mentioned to a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, my colleagues at the U.S.-Asia Institute, and me that Hong Kong’s leader, Ms. Carrie Lam, had made an uncalculated error in proposing a controversial law months earlier – one that would allow extradition to China. She underestimated the angry reaction of her people, inspiring millions to protest.


We met with Ms. Lam, but others on our busy agenda provided the most valuable insights to our delegation — from foreign ministry officials to Standing Committee and National People’s Congress members. The expression of shock and awe at the speed of deterioration in the bilateral relationship pervaded every room. Beijing’s party-liners repeatedly stated, “The two countries have lost the ability to communicate to prevent conflict. Constructive dialogue has all but ceased.” But over eleven days of visiting five Chinese cities, the honest and unguarded conversations resulting solely from extended human interactions with our counterparts made propagandized concern feel more real and emotional.


In flashing forward to the present, bilateral deterioration has only accelerated, yet the U.S. State Department halted such in-person Congressional Member delegations to China and Hong Kong. In 2020, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ended the visionary diplomatic initiative, MECEA, enacted by President John F. Kennedy. The Act supported vital trips, like that back in 2019, for Congress through American entities such as the U.S.-Asia Institute, coordinating closely with the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). MECEA remains active outside the PRC, though.


The State Department’s concern was that these programs “provide carefully curated access to Chinese Communist Party officials, not to the Chinese people, who do not enjoy freedoms of speech and assembly.” As such, they were viewed as “one-way programs” and “not mutually beneficial.”


However, MECEA does provide plenty of access to the Chinese people, as we met with Hong Kong protestors on the 2019 trip. Even worse, the ban obviously makes it much more difficult for Members to learn about China and prevents the ability to improve worsening bilateral tensions.


As a trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute, I have been a part of this diplomatic initiative and many of its delegations to China since 2012. More impressively, though, the Institute has executed this objective since 1979, coordinating more than 140 delegations to China.


While pundits and politicians in the U.S. are rightfully fixated on criticizing China over issues like Taiwan, military encroachment, human rights, espionage, trade imbalances, and technology transfers, plenty of bilateral exchange can and should continue. Solving these grave challenges requires human interaction between our respective leaders. MECEA’s people-to-people exchanges must be reinstated. If not, the bilateral relationship will return to its frozen, pre-1972 state – a time when China represented only a small fraction of the potential threat it poses to the globe today.


Without fail, I’ve witnessed the most ardent China hawks relax when sharing a meal or touring a site with their counterparts. And mitigated fear creates clarity.


Trip participants always come to realize that the scariest horror movies are those where you never get a good view of the monster. In experiencing a first-hand look at China, the bilateral crisis takes on more the plot of a drama rather than that of a suspenseful fright film.


Abated fear fosters constructive dialogue, defusing tensions.


Make no mistake, China is America’s greatest rival. But our nations must continue to coexist through in-person exchanges fostered under MECEA. JFK’s vision of effective foreign diplomacy never considered Sino-relations back when he signed it, but he created the universal template, and it must be reactivated for China. If not, ever-escalating tensions will inevitably lead to the very outcome both the House Intelligence Committee and JFK hope to avoid – war, and we should all share that same goal.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the stances of the US-Asia Institute.


Chris Fenton is a longtime media executive, producer, and author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business.” As an informal advisor to Congress’s Select Committee on China and a member of the U.S.-Asia Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, and Third Way Think Tank, he helps the private sector and Washington navigate America’s complicated relationship with China. Follow him on Twitter: @TheDragonFeeder.

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