Ambassador from China: Who Is Cui Tiankai?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cui Tiankai presented his credentials as ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the United States to President Barack Obama on April 15, 2013.


Cui was born in October 1952 in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, near Shanghai. In the early 1970s, he spent five years as a farmhand during the Cultural Revolution, the period in which many urban Chinese were forced back to the land in a kind of spiritual cleansing effort by the Chinese Communist Party. Cui later became one of the first Chinese officials to speak of his experience during the Cultural Revolution.


He attended East China Normal University, studying foreign languages. After his 1979 graduation, Cui spent two more years at a special school for interpreters. This led in 1981 to his being assigned to the United Nations as an interpreter.


In 1984, Cui returned to China to serve as the third secretary in the International Organizations and Conferences department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Cui returned to the United States in 1986 for postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University. He earned his Master’s in Public Administration at Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in 1987. He then returned to the International Organizations and Conference department and was named head of that department in 1988, a post he held for eight years.


Cui’s profile was raised in 1996 when he was named a deputy director and spokesman for China’s Foreign Affairs ministry. As such, he was a frequent source in Western media reports on China. In 1997, Cui was sent back to New York, this time as counselor in the Chinese mission to the UN.


In 1999, Cui returned to China to a position in the Policy Research Office, first as deputy director, then in 2001 as director. Cui moved to Foreign Affairs’ Asian Affairs Department in 2003 as director.


Cui was named assistant foreign affairs minister in 2006. One of his more prominent taks in that position was to participate in talks with Russia and Iran about Iran’s nuclear program.


In 2007, Cui took over as China’s ambassador to Japan. While in that job, he was outspoken on Japan’s role in World War II and some of its leaders’ attempts to downplay their country’s role as an aggressor in that conflict.


In 2010, Cui was named vice minister for Foreign Affairs. While there, at times he showed his ability to hew to the party line but in other instances he showed his skill in defusing tricky situations. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was named winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Cui was outspoken in trying to intimidate other nations into boycotting the Nobel ceremony, an attempt that was mostly unsuccessful. However in 2012, when civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and eventually requested safe passage to the United States, Cui helped resolve the situation by allowing Chen’s departure from China.


Since taking his post in Washington, Cui has seemingly become immersed in American culture. He took his wife, Ni Peijun, to the Super Bowl last February and was photographed on the sidelines. In March 2014, he told a panel in Beijing “I have seen both seasons of ‘House of Cards,’ which I think embodies some of the characteristics and corruption that is present in American politics.”


Cui has a reputation as a troubleshooter. “Cui is very good to have at the center of U.S.-China relations,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That's not because he's pro-U.S. but because he’s a subtle and wide-ranging thinker. He represents China's interests and then understands what might be accomplished.”


Cui and his wife have a daughter.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Behind Scenes, China’s Envoy Aims to Allay Tensions With U.S. (by Jane Perlez, New York Times)

Cui Interview with Charlie Rose

China Vitae Profile


Gary Zaetz 4 years ago
An Open Letter to China's Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Cui Tiankai: Dear Ambassador Cui, I write to you as a spokesperson for the families of over 400 American airmen lost during World War II in Arunachal Pradesh, a region of the Indian Himalayas bordering on China. We write to you respectfully seeking your Government’s cooperation in returning their remains to their country and their families. These families just want the mortal remains of their loved ones returned from their documented crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh, but the Chinese Government has created a huge impediment to this recovery by publicly attacking, in state-run media, operations intended to recover these remains. These heroic airmen lost their lives serving in the US Army Air Force and defending China against Japanese Imperial aggression, and the Chinese Government has honored their sacrifice by establishing memorials to them throughout China, for which we are grateful. As you are well aware, for decades, the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has considered India’s administration of Arunachal Pradesh to be illegal, claiming that the entire territory of Arunachal Pradesh actually belongs to China. The PRC Government, in fact, refers to Arunachal Pradesh as “so-called Arunachal Pradesh” and prefers to call it “Southern Tibet.” The PRC Government does not recognize the passports of Indians who reside in Arunachal Pradesh, and publicly protests whenever senior Indian Government officials like India’s Prime Minister or Defence Minister visit Arunachal Pradesh. On March 25, 2008, shortly after the announcement of a US-India agreement to permit recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh and other parts of Northeast India, the Chinese Government publicly alleged on China Radio International (CRI) that US efforts to recover their remains from Arunachal Pradesh are intended to "restrain” China. The radio commentary “described New Delhi’s motivations in this regard as attempting to strengthen military ties with Washington and legalise the status of Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian province, expecting that this would contribute to an increase in India’s weight in the ongoing negotiations with China on the disputed border. The US motivations, according to the Commentary, were to further develop its military relations with India...” (B. Raman, "Meanwhile, in Arunachal", Outlook India, June 7, 2012 ( This China Radio International commentary, by attributing ulterior motives to American MIA recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh, is extremely inaccurate and misleading. In reality, the only reason for these operations is humanitarianism and observance of the law of war codified in the Geneva Conventions: to locate the remains of American airmen at their crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh and return them to their families, who have been waiting for decades to be able to finally bury their loved ones. MIA recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh are purely humanitarian in motivation, and are not the least bit targeted against China. To allege that the US interest in these MIA recovery operations is to “restrain” China simply ignores the facts. After the turn of the millenium, the US Government showed very little interest in Arunachal Pradesh at all. It wasn’t until 2003-2007, when a private American investigator started locating US World War II crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh, that the families of these men started approaching the US Government about recovering their remains from these crash sites. In fact, the US Government for many months rejected these families’ requests, including my own family’s requests, that their loved ones’ remains be returned. The US Government had to be vigorously pushed by the families of these men to show any interest whatsoever in sending teams into Arunachal Pradesh to recover MIA remains. In fact, the US Defense Department cited numerous reasons to these families for NOT pursuing MIA recovery operations there. Only when the mass media in the US and India started publicizing the efforts of these families were the US and Indian Governments embarrassed into acting. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the US has ever sought any kind of permanent military presence in Arunachal Pradesh. While there have been many joint US-Indian military exercises over the years, not a single one has ever been conducted in Arunachal Pradesh. Nonetheless, the fact that the Government of China verbally attacked US remains recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh in its 2008 China Radio International commentary is most probably why the only crash site recovery operation ever started in Arunachal, at my uncle’s B-24 crash site, was prematurely halted in late 2009, before any remains could be recovered. Both the Indian Government and the new US Administration evidently did not want to risk antagonizing the Chinese Government by continuing the recovery operation, according to many well-informed scholars and journalists. Up to the present day, crash site recovery operations have not been permitted by the Indian Government anywhere in Arunachal Pradesh, out of fear of negative Chinese reaction. The Chinese Government needs to acknowledge this purely humanitarian dimension of the US-China relationship by stating publicly that it has no objections to the US Government sending recovery teams into Arunachal Pradesh to recover our relatives' remains. Until the Chinese Government makes that statement, the families of these heroes and their supporters will be compelled to put a large part of the blame on the Chinese Government for the current deadlock on resuming recoveries there. The current Chinese policy, unchanged since the Radio China International commentary of March 25, 2008, is interfering with purely humanitarian MIA recovery operations, and causing great distress to the families of these MIAs, who just want the remains of their loved ones returned after so many years. As relatives of the more than 400 American Army Air Force aviators whose remains are kept in limbo by this unjust policy, we respectfully request that the Chinese Government, in the interest of international humanitarianism, observance of the law of war, and good relations between the US and Chinese peoples, publicly deny that it has any objections at all to the resumption of MIA recoveries operations in the Arunachal Pradesh region of India. Respectfully, Gary Zaetz Vice-President for Research, MIA Recoveries, Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization Nephew of USAAF MIA 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz (308th Bombardment Group, 14th Air Force), whose crash site was discovered by MIA Recoveries in Arunachal Pradesh on December 7, 2006 124 Long Shadow Lane Cary, NC 27518 United States of America

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