It was in 1984 - election night in the United States - when the Chinese first confided their interest in the Peace Corps. American diplomats had invited Chinese officials to a party at the Great Wall Hotel in Peking to watch a live telecast of the election returns. Shortly after it became clear that Ronald Reagan had won reelection, one of the guests approached an American to request a Peace Corps program in China.
The request generated considerable excitement - prematurely as it turned out. It took almost four years of private visits and quiet Sino-American networking to reach an agreement in principle.
Delegations from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China visited Peace Corps offices in the US recently to negotiate an agreement for volunteers to serve in China. A Peace Corps team will travel to China this summer to work out details of the program, Peace Corps director Loret Ruppe said in a speech at the National Press Club June 16.
Still, both Chinese and American sources emphasize that lengthy negotiations will be needed before any volunteers are actually assigned to China. The only program detail that seems relatively certain now is that volunteers will teach English to Chinese teachers and students. About 100 volunteers will probably be assigned to China during the first year of the program.
Observers say the Chinese see the Peace Corps as a vehicle for consolidating their efforts to teach English throughout the country, a key component of the massive modernization program initiated under Deng Xiaoping. Through the use of English, China seeks to gain access to technology and opportunities to integrate itself into the world economy.
But the locations where volunteers will serve is an unresolved issue. Already about 1,000 Americans are teaching English in China under private contracts.
``Our coastal areas are much more developed than the hinterlands. Peace Corps' intention is to help the internal areas, the poor areas, and we agree with that,'' says Wang Li, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Volunteers will not live in big cities but in small towns and remote areas lacking teachers and facilities, he says.
A more controversial issue is whether the program will expand beyond teaching English. Peace Corps sources say that volunteer opportunities in health or agriculture and other technical areas could develop eventually, but others have doubts.
``The Chinese might accept the notion that they need help to learn a foreign language like English, but they certainly aren't going to have volunteers go out there and teach them to farm,'' says Roger Sullivan, president of the National Council for US-China Trade.
One of the sticking points that have delayed negotiations was Chinese opposition to use of the name ``Peace Corps'' in their country. The Peace Corps had borne the brunt of Chinese propaganda attacks against US institutions during the 1960s and early '70s, a period of deep-seated mutual hostility.
China was aspiring to a leadership role in the less developed countries where the US was stationing hundreds of young Americans. The early volunteers in Asia vividly recall Radio China broadcasts condemning Peace Corps volunteers as CIA agents.
Antagonism on both sides subsided with President Nixon's historic trip to Peking in early 1972. Since the US and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, great strides have been made in exchanges between the two countries. So some China-watchers see the Peace Corps agreement as relatively insignificant.
Inside the Peace Corps, however, a different view prevails. ``We saw it as a significant breakthrough in American-Chinese relations ... not just a Peace Corps story,'' says John Keeton, director for the region including the Far East. He says the Peace Corps has never been invited into a country with the importance of China, nor into a communist country.