Matt Pottinger has served as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in China for nearly five years. Now, at the age of 32, he is leaving to join the United States Marine Corps.
His is a story of a patriotism and commitment underscored and emphasized by the lessons he has learned living in one of the most politically repressive societies on the planet. There is so much we can all learn from him about China and about our own country.
“The regime in China,” Matt contends, “is held up by two props: economic advancement and control of news and information. The government is very good at both.”
How can a modern government police how 1.3 billion people who use the vast resources of the Internet? Pottinger explains: “The authorities spend countless man hours, involving tens of thousands of officials, monitoring what the Chinese people are accessing online.” And, he adds, Western companies facilitate their task by selling the sophisticated equipment and software that Beijing uses to maintain the new wall of China — its Internet firewall.
Pottinger says that living up close and personal under an authoritarian government made him value freedom all the more. He remembers once interviewing Chinese workers who were protesting official corruption only to be approached by a government thug — at a Starbucks in Beijing, no less — who punched him and said: “You will get f- - -ing out of the country. Right now.” Matt, however, defied the warning and remained in China and continued trying to report the truth despite official intimidation.
What of the other prop that holds up the Chinese regime — the spectacular economic growth? “The Chinese are infinitely adaptable,” he says. “They have a strong sense of national purpose and are dedicated to making their country succeed. They will adopt whatever skills they need to compete in the global economy and win; they are highly, highly motivated.”
But, Pottinger says, “China’s economic boom is based disproportionately on manufacturing and speculative real-estate deals.” He adds that “even the healthiest economies experiences recession from time to time. If China goes into recession, the ruling Communist Party will try to deflect popular attention away from its problems by blaming the United States and Japan.”
But now Pottinger has decided to stand at the frontier of freedom with the Marines. Will his fluency in Chinese be of much use in the military? Who knows?
“The Marines need Arabic speakers more than Chinese speakers at the moment,” he notes, “so maybe I’ll learn Arabic.”
For now he is on his way to boot camp at Quantico to try to become an officer. If he makes it, he’ll be commissioned as a second lieutenant. Why would he sacrifice a good salary with a prestigious publication for pushups and 20-mile forced marches?
For all of its shortcomings, this war in Iraq and Afghanistan is not being fought by the children of the poor at the behest of the rich. It is no Vietnam in that sense or in many others.
Matt’s father, Stan Pottinger, served as assistant attorney general under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Credited with inventing the concept of affirmative action (as an alternative to racial quotas), he recently renewed his reputation by keeping the secret of who was Deep Throat for 30 years, according to Bob Woodward, after finding out his identity in an unrelated federal prosecution.
While Matt Pottinger is following his father’s example of public service, the story of a young man interrupting his climb up the ladder of his career to serve us all by putting his life at risk for no financial reward is inspiring and worth sharing in this column.
We all could use a dose of his idealism from time to time. We could all use the courage to start again at the beginning and pursue our dreams, as Matt Pottinger is doing.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.