Cui Tiankai never expected he would stay in the United States so long.
His tenure as China’s ambassador to the US has arguably been the most turbulent of anyone in the role. The career diplomat has navigated eight years of unravelling relations – from the strains of the Barack Obama administration to the fire and fury of the Donald Trump era, and the uncertain rivalry shaping up under US President Joe Biden during a global pandemic.
The 68-year-old has stayed in the job years after it was supposed to come to an end in 2017, and well past the traditional retirement age of 65 for those of his ranking. But months into Biden’s presidency, as Washington conducts a review of its China policy and amid a growing gulf between the countries, Cui announced he was returning home after the “longest assignment in my diplomatic career”.
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“Relations between China and the US are at a critical crossroads, with the US engaging in a new round of restructuring in its government policy towards China, and it is facing a choice between cooperation and confrontation,” he wrote in a farewell letter on Tuesday.
Cui leaves big shoes to fill in Washington – the role is expected to go to foreign vice-minister Qin Gang, a career diplomat in European affairs without direct US experience. Observers have said that Beijing asked Cui, with his strong relationships with key US interlocutors and deep understanding of America, to prolong his stay to help steer the ship during the tumult of the Trump administration, when relations plummeted in an all-out trade war.
Born in Shanghai in October 1952, Cui bore witness to major events between Beijing and Washington.
By his own telling, when Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in July 1971, Cui was working on a farm in northeastern Heilongjiang during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution years. When Jimmy Carter welcomed former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping onto the south lawn of the White House in 1979, Cui was studying at the department of foreign languages at Shanghai Normal University.
Cui’s first trip abroad was as part of the early wave of Chinese officials to the US, as a translator with China’s delegation to the United Nations at its headquarters in New York. In 1986, he went on to earn a postgraduate degree in public policy at Johns Hopkins University, studying under professors such as the late China scholar A. Doak Barnett.
He rose through the ranks at the Chinese foreign ministry, going on to serve as ambassador to Japan in 2007, then as vice-minister of foreign affairs from 2009 to 2013, where he was in charge of the Americas and Oceania.
As foreign vice-minister, Cui had close dealings with Obama’s foreign policy team, including in talks with then-assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell over tensions in the disputed South China Sea, of which Beijing claims the vast majority as its own. In 2010, Campbell reportedly invited the Chinese diplomat to his Virginia farm, and having heard of Cui’s time in Heilongjiang, asked if he wanted to drive his tractor. Cui told Chinese media later that he “drove it and mowed the grass” and the two were “in very good spirits, and took a picture in front of the tractor”.
In 2012, he was also a key negotiator with Campbell – now Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy director – and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton after Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng fled house arrest to the US embassy in Beijing.
With his extensive experience working with the Americans, Cui began his posting as ambassador to Washington in April 2013, laying the groundwork for an informal summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Sunnylands retreat in California, where the two agreed to cut down on a potent greenhouse gas.
But the good times would not last. In 2015, tensions flared over Beijing’s build-up of artificial islands and militarisation of the South China Sea, and Cui was dispatched to convey China’s position on its sovereignty and to condemn US warships sailing near those islands.
Things hardened further when Trump won the presidency after a fiery, China-bashing campaign.
Cui sought to keep an even keel when the trade war began in 2018, saying China would respond to US tariffs but that Beijing still wanted to cut a deal. Even when official communication channels were closed off, Cui reportedly still had access through close ties with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But while Cui maintained the old-school style of Chinese diplomacy, younger and more outspoken diplomats began to step into the limelight, including Twitter fiend Zhao Lijian, who was appointed foreign ministry spokesman after controversial defences of Beijing on social media.
The divide between Cui – who only opened his Twitter account in June 2019, nearly a decade after Zhao – and those who aligned with Zhao’s brand of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy grew starker as Beijing faced unprecedented backlash during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a rare move, Cui issued a veiled rebuke of Zhao for amplifying the “crazy” conspiracy theory that the US military had spread the virus to China.
Since Biden took power, his administration has made clear that China is the US’ top competitor, and Cui has spent his final months in America dealing with rising tensions, including officials publicly sparring in front of the cameras at a meeting in Alaska in March.
Speaking with former US treasury secretary Hank Paulson in September, Cui said he had not expected to spend so long in Washington, and it was likely to be his last diplomatic posting abroad.
“I do feel grateful that I’m doing this job at this critical moment for both our countries,” he said. “The relations between the two countries are faced with such tremendous challenges. I’m grateful I’ve been given this opportunity to do this job here, to meet the challenges.”
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