Leland meeting with an official in Baishan, China in 2017

I was at my desk at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing when a small entourage whizzed by. I had to do a double take to confirm who I just saw. “Was that Jackie Chan!?” A half hour later, after sitting in on a meeting with him and our Charge de Affaires, I took a photo with the martial arts legend. “This is Rush Hour 3!” I thought as I struck a pose with Jackie for the camera.

It may sound cliché, but my fascination with China began with martial arts. When I was little, my cousin and I would stay up late, stretched out on the floor and snacks in hand, the only light in the room emanating from the TV, and binge-watched movies like Rush Hour, Legend of Drunken Master, and Shanghai Noon. I loved The Matrix so much that I memorized whole fight scenes. So, I began practicing martial arts—Kung Fu, Taekwondo, and later Jiu Jitsu. But my specific interest in China started at Brown University.

Leland with Jackie Chan in 2015 in Beijing

I’ll never forget when my International Relations professor told our class that China was going to be the single greatest strategic competitor to the U.S. That was 2008, the year when China made its global debut with the Beijing Olympics as the world roiled from the financial crisis. I took the professor’s suggestion to heart, studying Mandarin and researching China’s increasing influence around the globe, and in Latin America specifically.

Right out of college I landed a job at China Central Television. I first worked on its Latin America news program called Americas Now, then joined the international politics show The Heat. It was my first time working alongside Chinese colleagues, using their language and learning more of their culture. However, I realized that through CCTV I only saw a curated, rose-colored view of China.

After CCTV I taught English in Panama on a Fulbright, while also researching the tug of war between mainland China and Taiwan over Panama’s diplomatic recognition (we all know how that ultimately played out). I received the Pickering Fellowship to study grad school at the Tufts Fletcher School, where I focused on Chinese foreign policy and served as president of the Fletcher China Studies Club.

After grad school, I became a State Department Foreign Service Officer, serving on the China Desk in DC, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the U.S. consulate in Shenyang. Throughout my time at State, I worked behind the scenes on the Obama administration’s US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, engaged with Chinese stars like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, and translated for former National Security Advisor Susan Rice during her trip to the Forbidden City. I also traveled all around northeast China, telling America’s story and encouraging Chinese young people to study in the U.S.

But I was also exposed to the darker side of China. While watching CNN at breakfast, I’d see the screen go black for several minutes right before the correspondents were going to report something negative about China or President Xi. Certain websites and VPNs were blocked for days at a time during sensitive anniversaries. I was briefed about a human rights activist who simply disappeared for weeks and reappeared on TV, apologizing for what the CCP called “instigating subversion of state authority.” The ubiquitous party propaganda projected Xi’s smiling face on walls, billboards, and bus stops. During a trip to the China-North Korea border town of Tumen, PRC police stopped our bus and forced us to turn around. While on a work trip to the port city of Huludao, a black car followed my colleague and me around, causing our DiDi driver to refuse to take us any further. These experiences showed me first-hand the authoritarian practices in China’s society, and why the U.S. needs to call China out for such abuses.

After my tour in Shenyang, I worked as a Public Diplomacy Officer at the U.S. Embassy for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Even though in a different region, I used my China expertise to help keep track of the PRC’s increasing soft power in the Caribbean. Recently, I joined U.S. Southern Command, whose Commander Admiral Craig Faller has called Latin America and the Caribbean the “front line” of strategic competition between the U.S. and China.

In order to successfully manage the bilateral relationship, we need more diverse China experts in government, academia, and the private sector to ensure that the U.S. can cooperate with China when it can, compete with China when it should, and confront China when it must. That’s where NABEA comes in. For me, NABEA is a community of China Hands of Color (CHC) where we can learn from one another and grow from each other’s experiences. My contribution to NABEA is co-leading the Mandarin Language Group, so that our language skills remain sharp and continue to improve. But ultimately, I hope NABEA becomes a national ecosystem where members are sharing job opportunities, knowledge, and passion so that all China Hands of Color can help write a new chapter in the US-China relationship.


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Why I Joined NABEA – Leland Lazarus
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