UT alumnus reflects on time as intermediary between cultures

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

China generally stifles foreign views in the press, but to his surprise, David Firestein, lead of the new UT China Policy Center, became the country’s first foreign citizen to write a column in a state-run newspaper — in large part due to his fluent Mandarin and friendships in the media. Born and raised in Austin, Firestein began learning Chinese as an undergraduate in Georgetown University. His grasp of the language and culture accelerated when he spent a semester at Peking University in Beijing, where he was surrounded by a community of Chinese students and friends.

“It was helpful to me in a lot of different ways, from a language standpoint and obviously from the standpoint of just getting a much deeper understanding of China,” Firestein said.

Years later, as a U.S. diplomat submitting weekly columns to the Beijing Youth Daily, Firestein would in return offer a deeper understanding of the U.S. to a Chinese audience.

After Texas legalized concealed carry in 1995, Firestein explained in his Chinese column the extensive debate about it. In a country where its police rarely pack heat and its citizens are generally prohibited from owning firearms, Firestein said Chinese citizens were particularly intrigued by this issue.

“The whole gun debate in the United States was not accessible to the Chinese public,” Firestein said. “It just was hard for people to understand this concept that people could not only own guns but walk around carrying them in a concealed way that was lawful.”

Firestein would also explain gay marriage and other topics in his columns but avoided sharing his personal views. Firestein said he wanted to outline both sides of the issue and more importantly, highlight how free expression was in America.

“The undergirding messaging was really about how important informed and confident discourse is to a nation’s development,” Firestein said. “What I was trying to do was to highlight the vigor and vitality of debate in America.”

Firestein did test the editorial waters once when he criticized the use of bribes in Chinese media. Expecting wrath from the government, Firestein was surprised to receive an award instead for the column — something that remains a mystery to him to this day. 

“It was one of the more surreal and bizarre experiences I’ve ever had,” Firestein said. “A sitting U.S. diplomat (won) a journalistic award from a communist-controlled Chinese media entity for blasting corrupt practices within the Chinese media.”

Despite this episode, Firestein’s career is primarily illustrated as an interpreter between two cultures.

Working nearly two decades as a U.S. foreign services officer and eight years with the EastWest Institute, a foreign policy think tank, Firestein will lead UT’s brand new China Policy Center this fall, a research hub for China-related policy.

“No one is better suited to lead this center than David Firestein,” said Angela Evans, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, in an email statement that listed Firestein’s experience.

Paul D. Miller, associate director of the Clements Center for National Security, said the new center will attract more speakers about China to campus.

“Students will benefit from the new center because of the research it will promote, the speakers it will bring to campus, and the events it will sponsor,” Miller said.

After years abroad and away from UT — where Firestein went for graduate school and briefly taught — he is excited to return to UT to teach students about China.

“It’s just an absolute pleasure to return to campus,” Firestein said. “To be teaching and helping students enhance their understanding of China and also develop skills and knowledge that will serve them well in their careers — all of this is enormously gratifying to me.”