Lasting Relations, New Hopes

05/10/2015 02:02 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Editor-in-Chief Teddy Miller sits down with former United States Ambassador to China Winston Lord at the China Hands 2014 Fall Issue Launch Event.

It was a celebration: the China Hands 2014 Fall Issue launch event. Writers, editors, designers and business team members crowded into the Trumbull Room of Yale University's Branford College. China Hands had organized a launch event each semester since the organization's inception two years, four issues, ago. It was a tradition.

And yet anticipation filled the room. The party's guest of honor was on his way, and only someone of Winston Lord's pedigree could have commanded that level of respect from a group of college students on a Friday night. A former President of the Council on Foreign Relations (1977-1985), United States Ambassador to the People's Republic of China (1985-1989) and Assistant Secretary of States for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1993-1997), Winston Lord, Yale College class of 1959, has not only helped shape the foreign policy of the United States for the greater part of the last half-century, he has also been an integral figure to the US-China relationship.

Unsurprisingly, when Lord walked through the door, the room became completely still. However, with the conversational savvy of a career diplomat, he quickly broke the tension by making a quip about the dismal New Haven weather.

After a few chatter-filled moments, the group settled down, sitting comfortably on the cushioned couches of the Trumbull Room with Lord seated at the center. As the interviewer, I was seated to his right, pencil and list of questions in hand.

Lord opened by speaking to the entire group, summarizing his broad view of US-China relations with one simple, effective sentence: "I've seen it at many different times from many different perspectives." Lord's abbreviated autobiography was not just a history of work, though; it was charged with pointed insights and colorful, even humorous, anecdotes.

Early on in his career, Lord, as a member of the United States National Security Council's planning staff, was a special assistant to Henry Kissinger during his famous secret trip to Beijing in 1971. When recalling the adventure, Lord confidently and humorously noted that he was actually the first American to enter China since the Communist Party's victory in 1949. "Some of you may think that Dr. Kissinger was the American to go into China after 1949," Lord said, "but I was there ahead of Dr. Kissinger, just before we got to the Chinese border I went to the front of the plane... so I was the first."

After outlining his involvement at the top levels of the ever-changing relationship, Lord began to give an account of his position on current affairs between the two superpowers. Lord started by declaring his support or "bipartisanship, pragmatism and moderation," referring to himself as a "flaming centrist." Lord also stressed how one also had to realize that the US-China relationship is "not only the most important relationship in the world, but also the most complex."

Lord himself believes in a double-sided path to more amiable relations. "On the one hand," he said, "we've got to make sure that America genuinely welcomes the rise of China," as it could be "a spur to make us more dynamic ourselves." "We've got to accord China a great role in world events," he firmly stated. At the same time, however, Lord argued that China should make an effort to adhere better to international norms.

Satisfied with the description, I asked what Lord made of President Obama's recent seemingly successful negotiations in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, particularly with regards to climate change. Lord gave an overall positive picture, noting that the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change could be crucial for younger generations. What is not yet clear, however, according to Lord, is "whether this is temporary or it's a significant improvement in our relations."

Not everything about the Obama visit went so smoothly, however, and it was reported that during the concluding discussions, Xi ardently warned against foreign governments meddling in China's domestic affairs. On this topic, Lord expressed a deep level of concern. Speaking candidly, Lord specifically worried about a rising "anti-Western theme, led by Xi himself." Lord explained further his understanding that the sentiments Xi communicated were "a reflection of China's growing power and its rightful place in the world."

On a deeper level, Lord believes there is a certain degree of "insecurity" within the Communist Party "about how stable the situation is politically." Lord said that "between corruption and pollution and the lockup of dissidents and the problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, there's a lot of turmoil in there." Even though China looks very confident on the world stage, "Xi and the others are concerned at home" due to "some inherent problems in Chinese society."

Returning to the positives as the conversation drew to a close, Lord demonstrated his profound hope for the future of US-China relations by telling his audience how students like ourselves could contribute. "The first way to make a contribution," Lord made clear, "is to go to the other country." For those interested in government, Lord urged them to employ "wider perspectives" when discussing matters with their Chinese counterparts. "It's not just government, business connections, cultural, journalistic, all these can help strengthen the fabric," Lord said encouragingly.

Before heading back out into the night with his entourage, former US Ambassador to China Winston Lord left me with one statement in particular that has stuck in my head. "I'm not saying young people by themselves are going to solve this problem," Lord said, "but they represent the foundation for the future."

Teddy Miller is a junior at Yale University and the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. Contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.