John Holden on four decades of change in China


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The veteran China watcher and associate dean at the Yenching Academy of Peking University shares insight gained from years of experience with the nation.

Image courtesy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

John Holden has one word of advice for people trying to understand China: humility.

“Anybody who tries to come to grips with China, a country with a very rich civilization, a long history… You just have to be humble in recognizing that there are things you will get wrong, things you will miss,” he says around the 36-minute mark of this week’s episode.

John is one to know. After completing his master’s degree in Chinese language and literature at Stanford University in 1980, he worked on a project to translate the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese. In 1981, he served as an interpreter for National Geographic during an expedition along the Yellow River. From 1986 to 1998, he was the chairman of the China branch of Cargill, a large multinational company, and from there he went on to provide high-level consulting and business leadership to a number of firms working in the nation. He also served as the president of the National Committee on United States–China Relations from 1998 to 2005, was the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, and currently holds a position with the Asia program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In addition, he is an associate dean with the Yenching Academy of Peking University, which offers a master’s degree in China studies.

Being humble isn’t the only advice John has for people trying to understand China. Business leaders looking for insight should listen around the 27-minute mark. There John explains the value of taking the time to “double down” on researching the local market and mastering customer communication on Chinese social media. And if you want a peek at the personalities of some of China’s top political leaders of the past, check out the 18-minute mark or so, where John discusses meeting with the “very, very smart” Wu Yi and Zhu Rongji.

Amid all of the changes John has witnessed in China over the past several decades — he notes its business environment has become increasingly competitive and challenging for foreign firms, and access to political leaders has become more difficult — he has also observed at least one steadfast feature: “That drive to be more open and to learn and to study — that is the most salient feature of my experience with China over the past 35 years, and it’s still very much there today,” he says near the 12-minute point of the podcast.

At the present, John sees China at a crossroads of rapid economic and political change that is fueling a stream of news reports about the nation becoming more closed to foreign culture and investment. He is hopeful it is just a phase of the development of an increasingly complex country.

“China has been a story in my lifetime of two steps forward, one step back,” he says around the 26-minute mark. “We may be one step back at the moment.” For additional context on the life of John Holden and the times that he has seen China go through, check out our backgrounder accompanying this episode.


John: Review of the American Chamber of Commerce’s involvement in China: “AmCham China Legacy: A Better Business Environment,” by Graham Norris, and The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret.

Jeremy: Article from the South China Morning Post about Cuban-Chinese: “Lost in Cuba: China’s ‘forgotten diaspora.'”

Kaiser: Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard French.

Ada: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson.