Washington Journal of Modern China, Spring 2001/ Volume 7, No. 1

In Memoriam

Arthur W. Hummel, Jr. and Michel Oksenberg


The field of Sinology weathered a double blow in February with the passing of Arthur W. Hummel, Jr. and Michel Oksenberg. One primarily a diplomat and the other primarily an academician, each extended their influence into both arenas and considerably enriched our understanding of China and the conduct of U.S.-China relations. We asked those who knew them well in a variety of capacities to write the following tributes, in the hopes of bringing some of their special gifts to life in these pages.

Arthur W. Hummel, Jr.


Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., was a reserved and unloquacious man of great dignity and compelling diplomatic skill and integrity. Raised in China by missionary parents, he was rebellious in his youth. As a young man, he fought with Chinese guerillas against the Japanese occupation of China. As an adult he represented the United States abroad with great distinction. There can be no doubt that he was one of the most remarkable men to serve our country as an emissary abroad in the last half of the twentieth century. Although most readers of the Washington Journal will remember him for the powerful role he played in developing American relations with China during the crucial, formative period that followed normalization, his influence on America’s foreign relations went well beyond China and East Asia.

Art Hummel's service in senior foreign policy positions prior to his appointment as ambassador to the People's Republic of China in 1981 included deputy chief of mission at Taipei (1965-1968), ambassador to Burma (1968-1971), deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1971-1975), ambassador to Ethiopia (1975-1976), assistant secretary
of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1976-1977), and ambassador to Pakistan (1977-1981).
These were not easy assignments on any level. Art Hummel's service in Washington centered on what was even then one of the most controversial of all U. S. relationships abroad–that with China. On several occasions, I had the inspiring pleasure of observing that he would not shade his analysis or counsel to pander to the views of his superiors, even those as powerfully temperamental as then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. After transparently suffering some initial annoyance at having a career foreign service officer tactfully but laconically correct some of his erroneous preconceptions, the Secretary of State developed great confidence in Art Hummel's advice.

Ambassador Hummel's postings abroad involved helping the United States communicate with very different governments across significant cultural divides, managing unusually difficult bilateral relationships, and sustaining the esprit of embassy staff under often trying, sometimes frightening, conditions. (During his time in Pakistan, the U.S. embassy was assaulted and burned by a mob that mistakenly believed the United States had seized the holy city of Mecca.)
Hundreds of officers who worked under Art Hummel in these missions will testify that he took the time to challenge and tutor them, that he and his wife, Betty Lou, earned their affection as well as their admiration, and that they saw Art as epitomizing what an ambassador should be. Certainly I came to see him that way during the more than three years I served under him as deputy chief of mission at Beijing. He began as a father figure to me; he became a close friend. He was someone I, like so many other officers who knew him, sought to emulate.

Art Hummel was as perfectly prepared for his assignment as United States ambassador to Beijing as any incumbent of that position is ever likely to be. Born in China, he spoke fluent, if not elegant, colloquial Chinese and had an insightful, quite unromantic view of China and its rulers. He was American through and through, without ambivalence–but he was an American with an intellectual and empathetic understanding of another land, its people, history, and standards of behavior, both admirable and deplorable.

His training and long experience as a professional diplomat and his personal integrity ensured that his starting point in examining any issue related to China was an understanding of Chinese perspectives and motives. It also ensured that the canon of judgment he applied in the end was focused on the national interests of the United States as he saw them rather than China's interests, Taiwan's, or–still less–his own.

Art Hummel thought clearly, and often originally, about both China and Sino-American relations, though he was frugal in sharing his thoughts. When called upon to speak in public, he was eloquent. He was justifiably confident of his judgment. He made decisions easily–usually very good decisions; he never sought to deny that he had made them or to shift the blame to those who had advised or misadvised him in the process. On several occasions I saw him stand his ground against powerful and self-important proponents of contra-factual notions about the United States or China; he was both persuasive and courageous, not to say pugnacious. He was a superb negotiator, famously adept at using poker-faced silence to elicit concessions (and sometimes admissions against interest) from others. He was unabashed by the need to repeat demands (even those he privately considered outrageously overdrawn) until he had moved the other side as close as he could to the terms of his instructions.

These qualities served Ambassador Hummel in good stead during his embassy to China, the first year of which was marked by tensions over Taiwan arms sales and the renegotiation of Sino-American normalization as it related to that hyper-neuralgic issue. He presided over, guided, and conducted the crucial sessions of those negotiations, which produced what proved to be a decade-long modus vivendi on that crucial issue. With this achievement behind him, he turned to the reconstruction of the sort of Sino-American relationship the two countries might have had, had we not suffered from thirty years of official estrangement from 1949 to 1979. By the time he ended his four years as ambassador to China, he had largely achieved this goal. His tenure marked both the most creative period and, in many respects, the apogee of warmth in the bilateral relationship between the two countries in the last half of the twentieth century.

No account of Art Hummel's tenure as ambassador to Beijing would be complete without noting the great attention he paid to the burgeoning, if beleaguered, American community in Beijing. Having spent his youth in Fen Xian, a remote area of rural China, he knew well how important Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other traditional American observances could be for those deprived of them. Although life for Chinese and foreigners alike improved rapidly as Deng Xiaoping's reforms took hold, the early 1980s were still a pioneering time. Housing in Beijing was unavailable or substandard; businessmen and women were forced to reside and work in dingy third-rate hotels; the only vegetable available from November through early March was cabbage; and the amenities, freedoms, and ease of life of contemporary Chinese society were essentially unimaginable.
The Hummels opened their residence to the American business community, to American students, and to embassy staff. I doubt that they had any idea how many lives they touched and what gratitude they earned for this hospitality from a host of people who never saw them again after they left China. Hundreds of Americans will never forget the concern the U.S. ambassador and his wife evinced for them as they lived and worked under the difficult conditions of those times in China. Art and Betty Lou Hummel remained the focal point of an enduring community of Americans associated with them in China after their return from Beijing, when they annually welcomed to their home in Washington those who had served in those early days in China's post-Maoist capital.

Finally, a word about Art Hummel in his post-Foreign Service retirement. He kept up his numerous friendships. He was active in a number of civic associations, including the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, and he was a most valued board member and inspirational force at the United States-China Policy Foundation. He was a strong supporter of this Journal and of our Foundation's hopes to make it a quarterly of commentary on United States policy toward China, with respect to which he remained an insightful and fearless commentator. He never had any regard for the intimidating effects of political correctness. We can, I believe, honor him best by carrying on his tradition of objective focus on U.S. interests as they relate to China. That is what we will strive to continue to do in the activities of the Foundation and the pages of this Journal.

—Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Arthur W. Hummel, Jr.


With profound sadness I learned of the February 6 passing of Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., a co-founder and board member of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

I first met Art, as most of his friends called him, more than 40 years ago, when he walked in to do research in the Chinese Department of the Library of Congress one day. His father, Dr. Arthur W. Hummel, Sr., a noted Sinologist, had established the foundation of the Chinese collection for the Library, now the largest collection of Chinese books outside China. Art Jr. had a keen interest in making the Chinese collection easier for American China scholars to use. I was fortunate enough to become head of this Chinese section in subsequent years, a great honor particularly for a Chinese-American. Initially through our shared interest in the Chinese collection, Art and I developed a friendship that grew closer and closer over the years.
Born in China, where his parents worked as missionaries, Art moved back to the United States with his family at age eight. He left Antioch College in Ohio in 1938 and spent two years working a variety of odd jobs including hospital orderly, sales clerk, and detective. He went back to China in 1940 to aid his father on a book-buying trip. He stayed on to teach English in a Chinese high school and to study Chinese at the College of Chinese Studies in what was then called Peking.

The Japanese interned Art along with other Americans after the December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor. In 1944, he and a British fellow prisoner managed to escape with the help of Chinese Nationalist guerillas fighting behind Japanese lines. He then joined these guerillas to fight against both the Japanese and the Chinese Communists for 15 months, until V-J day. “I don’t know why, but I really cannot remember being scared,” Ambassador Hummel later said. “It all seemed like great fun.”
After the war ended, Art worked in China for a year with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration before returning to the United States. There he worked for United China Relief as a lecturer and fundraiser before going on to get a masters degree in Chinese studies from the University of Chicago.

In 1950, he joined the State Department, beginning a 35-year diplomatic career in which he would be ambassador to China, Burma, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, serving also in Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan. In 1976-77, he was in charge of East Asia policy as assistant Secretary of State. As ambassador to China, he was the chief negotiator of the August 17, 1982 United States-China Joint Communiqué on U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan.

Whenever he came back to Washington, D.C., he would stop by the Library of Congress to say hello and sometimes to get research material. I, in turn, visited his office several times during his four years as ambassador to China.
After he retired, we met from time to time for lunch. We talked sometimes about his life in China, but mostly about the development of the Chinese collection at the Library of Congress. Our relationship often felt like that of an older brother and teacher guiding a younger student. Whenever I felt discouraged, he would remind me that I was in a position to continue to develop the collection started by his father, which had become one of the most important centers for American research on China.

In the early 1990s, Art and I began to discuss the idea of an informal forum to improve understanding between the United States and China. We convened a group that included professors, researchers, and retired Foreign Service officers. Eventually this group established the United States-China Policy Foundation, which is dedicated to improving relations between the people of the United States and China. Art remained an active board member of the foundation until he died and his personal contribution will always be remembered.
I can’t help but wonder what Art would have to say about current events, including President George W. Bush’s April 25 statement on Taiwan. When asked if America would use the “full force” of its military to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, Bush responded that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself.” This statement appears to dismantle the essential ambiguity at the heart of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which stipulates that America will help Taiwan defend itself from attack but does not guarantee the sending of U.S. troops into combat. Given the many hours Art spent negotiating the 1982 joint communiqué, I am sure he would have plenty to say about these latest developments.

Now that he is gone, I feel I have lost a good friend and wise counsel. We mourn a man of great integrity and a deep understanding of the Chinese people, who will be remembered by all who came to know him.

–Chi Wang

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