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Making the Most of Adversity: Managing the Consular Section in Guangzhou, China

Adversity can often bring out the best in those who are willing to rise to the challenges it throws at them. This principle holds especially true for foreign service officers. Elizabeth “Liz” Raspolic encountered one of the more challenging posts of her foreign service career in Guangzhou, China from 1983 to 1986, where she served as chief of the consular section.

Guangzhou - Chancery Office Building - 1979 (1979) Department of State. Office of the Undersecretary for Management. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. (2001) | Wikimedia Commons
Guangzhou - Chancery Office Building - 1979 (1979) Department of State. Office of the Undersecretary for Management. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. (2001) | Wikimedia Commons

There, she would have to adapt not only to uncomfortable conditions at her workplace, but also to the task of effectively managing the junior officers (JOs) and helping them organize their responsibilities. In addition, Raspolic had to address a particularly unusual American Citizens Services (ACS) case, for which she and the other foreign service officers in Guangzhou would have to “think outside the box” to arrive at a solution.

Throughout Raspolic’s service in Guangzhou, she encountered unpleasant workplace conditions that had the potential to prompt foreign service officers to “feel sorry for themselves.” The Dong Fang Hotel, in which the consular section’s office was located during Raspolic’s first two years in Guangzhou, offered a number of unwelcome surprises for Raspolic—a lack of security and natural light, a significant amount of noise from nearby foot traffic, rats and cats that roamed the ceiling, and cockroaches and waterbugs in the facilities. Moreover, the carpeting contained fleas, for which Raspolic and her team had to call in exterminators. Raspolic not only had to manage these unideal workplace conditions, but she also had the responsibility of managing the large number of JOs in the consular section, whom she would need to integrate effectively into the section while providing them opportunities to gain valuable experience that would serve them well throughout their foreign service careers. If those circumstances were not challenging enough, Raspolic and her team faced the difficult American Citizens Services [ACS] case of making arrangements to send an American citizen with “a history of psychiatric problems” out of China and back to her family in London.

Despite the unappealing conditions at the Dong Fang Hotel, Raspolic’s dedication to her work remained undeterred, and she took action to improve her team’s circumstances by obtaining the embassy’s permission to rent an available space next to the hotel, enabling the consular section to nearly double its floor space. Raspolic’s proactive efforts to improve her team’s workplace conditions corresponded with her commitment to helping other foreign service officers in the consular section pursue special projects that would appeal to their interests, as well as providing JOs opportunities to develop a more well-rounded set of skills as they rotated among assignments. Finally, Raspolic’s determination to adapt to obstacles and her capacity to plan unique solutions would prove crucial in resolving the ACS case. Under Raspolic’s management, the consular section successfully arranged the American citizen’s transfer to Beijing and flight to London without passing through Hong Kong, from where Raspolic believed the lady would attempt to return to mainland China. Despite having to hire nurses at the last minute to escort the lady to Beijing and having to arrange for the resupply of the lady’s sedatives with only 45 minutes to go before her departure flight, Raspolic acted quickly and decisively, finding and sending the sedatives for the lady’s flight to secure her successful journey back to London.

Raspolic’s experiences in Guangzhou revealed her excellent capacity to respond to challenging circumstances with fortitude, determination, and ingenuity, as well as a refreshing ability to find humor in adversity. The skills Raspolic displayed in Guangzhou did not emerge in a vacuum, but rather developed over the course of her extensive foreign service career, in which her service in locations such as Lyon, France; Seoul, South Korea; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia provided diverse opportunities for continuous learning, adaptation, and growth. Her oral history’s telling of the remarkable circumstances she faced in Guangzhou and these other locations, as well as her capacity to adapt successfully to the difficulties and opportunities she faced, make her oral history a must-read for the foreign service officers of today, exemplifying both the challenges and the rewards that a foreign service career can bring.

Liz Raspolic’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on February 12, 1989.

Read Liz Raspolic’s full oral history HERE.

Check out more Moments on China about life as a diplomatic courier in China, the Taiwan straits crises, peace negotiations, Tiananmen, the Chinese economy in the 1990s, Hong Kong returning to China part 1 and part 2, and  Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Drafted by Evan Clark and Maya Lytje

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Excerpts:

“We had rats in the ceiling, we had cats in the ceiling. . . . We had fleas in the carpeting. . . . We had huge roaches, huge water bugs. . . . (Laughs) It really was very unique.”

Navigating Challenging Workplace Conditions:
Q: In Guangzhou, this was your first time, really, in running a section?

RASPOLIC: Other than the very small section in Addis Ababa, where I had one part-time American employee and two full-time Ethiopian employees, until we fired one.

Q: How well did you feel you were prepared at this point to run, really, a very large section?

RASPOLIC: I felt probably that the State Department had not prepared me to run it, but that I had had sufficient previous experience in the Peace Corps that I could run it. I suppose the largest group I had ever been responsible for was when I was regional director in Thailand and had 120 Peace Corps volunteers in my region that I was responsible for. Granted, I didn’t have them all around me every day, but they were all over the countryside. Still, I was reasonably familiar with some of the problems.

Q: Were you consul general Guangzhou?

RASPOLIC: No. Because it was a constituent post, the principal officer was the consul general. I was the chief of the consular section.

Q: What did you see as your principal job?

RASPOLIC: My principal job was really a management job, not a consular job. I felt that my principal job was to see that the section opened for business every day and got through the business day in as smooth and as efficient and as legal a manner as we possibly could. That was the basis of the daily operations, and from then on I would try to work with various officers whom I felt were interested in special projects. We had all sorts of special projects going all the time. Somebody was doing research on how a Chinese cook could qualify for P-6 status; someone else would be doing a special project on how to interview for fraud in a country that wouldn’t let you go out and do field interviews for fraud. Things like this. Trying to utilize various officers’ special interests and keep them occupied.

Q: I don’t mean this term pejoratively, but would you make up these special projects?

RASPOLIC: No, no, not at all. Not at all. Usually the special project would come about because we would have requests from perhaps INS in Hong Kong, saying, “We’ve got a real problem with P-6 cooks. How are we going to deal with it?” So then I’d sit down and we’d have one of our weekly staff meetings. We’d sit around and shoot the breeze about how could we approach it. Somebody would say, “Listen, who’s been out talking to the public health officials about how you qualify, how are you licensed in China to be a cook?” Then somebody would say, “Gee, I met somebody the other day who might be able to give me a hand on that. Let me look into it.” It would start that way. It would not be any kind of make-work project at all.

Q: Were the junior officers ready to do this type of work, or did they need quite a bit of guidance?

RASPOLIC: It varied so much from officer to officer. I found most of them were really quite ready, and they had gone through the ConGen Rosslyn course, which seemed to be relatively successful, I must say, much more so than I felt my training had been. There were always exceptions. (Laughs) There were several officers whom I don’t think performed as well as one would have hoped, and I don’t think it was necessarily Guangzhou; I basically felt that they perhaps weren’t really right for the Foreign Service, and maybe Guangzhou brought it all out a lot sooner than an easier post would have done.

Q: What were the pressures on you and your staff?

RASPOLIC: Basically, it was not traditional kinds of pressures. We had pressures to issue visas, yes, but in Guangzhou, people spend a lot more time feeling sorry for themselves, I think, and you had to watch among the JOs not to let them feel sorry for themselves. It is not a pleasant post by any means.

Q: Feeling sorry for themselves in what manner?

RASPOLIC: The city is not a comfortable city. It is not all that charming. It’s a very commercial city that you can see the main sites of within the first 45 minutes that you’re there, but you’re there for two years or 18 months or three years, it depends on your tour. So what are you going to do with the rest of the time? It’s too easy to say, “I’ll go to Hong Kong every weekend.” You can catch the train Friday night and come back on Sunday afternoon, and have a very pleasant weekend in Hong Kong, but that’s sort of living with one foot in each country, really giving Guangzhou short-shrift.

One of our biggest problems was our facilities in Guangzhou. We were in a hotel, the Dong Fang Hotel. For the first two years that I was there, our office was there and our living quarters. I lived in two hotel rooms in Guangzhou.

Then the third year that I was there, we moved into a marvelous apartment complex. It was really just very lovely. It was a joint venture built by Chinese construction workers with Hong Kong architects, and it was really very nice. But that was the third year.

Our offices continued all that time to be in the Dong Fang Hotel. The consular section was on the ground floor. We had absolutely no security, which bothered us from time to time very much. The first year that I was there, I managed to expand the offices. There was the hotel Sauna that was located next to us, and the hotel was building a new sports complex on another corner of the compound, so this space became available. So we got permission from the embassy to rent it, and we expanded our consular section, which almost doubled our floor space and made a big difference. But we were on the ground floor.

There was a lot of foot traffic outside, a lot of noise. We had no natural light at all, because for security reasons, we had to cover up the glass windows leading out to the courtyard on the interior side. On the exterior side it was just cement brick wall anyway. We had rats in the ceiling, we had cats in the ceiling. In fact, one day a cat fell through the ceiling; it was fighting one of the rats.

We had fleas in the carpeting. In fact, at one point we used to have the exterminators come in, and I really am still, to this day, concerned about what they used to exterminate the fleas with, because we would have to leave. We could not work. Everybody always used to work late in Guangzhou, particularly when we lived in the Dong Fang. There was nothing else to do, so we would work late. We would always have to leave on time the day the exterminators were coming in, because this stuff really was very potent.

We used to also worry about the Dong Fang employees who came in and used their electrical equipment to spread this disinfectant, or whatever it was, because they only had a little gauze mask on. I really was concerned about whether this stuff was eating up their lungs or not.

We had huge roaches, huge water bugs. Not until we expanded the office space did we have a staff toilet, men’s room, ladies’ room. Before that, we had to leave the office and go out and use either the public facilities that belonged to the hotel or go to your own quarters on another floor, go back to your own apartment and use the john. (Laughs) It really was very unique.

We had a tremendous problem with administration the first year that I was there. I was there for three years, and we had four administrative officers. The first three were the first year that I was there, and then the fourth one came, and he stayed for two years. He was a godsend. He was very, very easy to work with.

“We tried to give consular-cone people as broad experience as we can, because even if it’s only a month doing this and you don’t do it again for two tours, you will think back and remember and absorb some of this experience, and it will surface again later to the benefit of the Department.”

           
Locals on the run outside the Grandview Plaza in Tianhe District. In the background is the 80-story CITIC Plaza. (23 November 2006 (original upload date)) (WT-en) Jianhuang at English Wikivoyage | Wikimedia Commons
Locals on the run outside the Grandview Plaza in Tianhe District. In the background is the 80-story CITIC Plaza. (23 November 2006 (original upload date)) (WT-en) Jianhuang at English Wikivoyage | Wikimedia Commons

Managing and Integrating Junior Officers:
Q: This interview is for people who may be dealing with the consular operation. One of the big things is to try to rotate officers and keep them having fun, or at least to keep them from being bored in some of the more routine things.

RASPOLIC: Yes. If you’re going to be running a section with lots of JOs, you have to be concerned with their careers and training them for what comes next. Then you’ve got to sort out among the JOs who has already said that he or she is going to be in the consular cone, and who is in another cone. We tried to give consular-cone people as broad experience as we can, because even if it’s only a month doing this and you don’t do it again for two tours, you will think back and remember and absorb some of this experience, and it will surface again later to the benefit of the Department.

If the person is just paying their dues as a one-time consular officer, then they’re going off to make their mark as an econ or admin or political officer, we certainly tried to provide more experience for them, but probably they won’t get as much as a consular-cone officer.

What we tried to do was split a JO’s tour. First of all, we tried to split the JO’s tour, I think, probably too frequently. They had 18 months. We said, “We’ll divide it into four sectors. Two of those sectors will be in immigrant visa, since that’s the bulk of our work. The other will be either NIVs [non-immigrant visas] or AFU [anti-fraud unit] or ACS [American Citizen’s Services]. We’ll just see how it works out. You’ll have the luck of the draw.” I would work it all out tentatively in pencil and take it around and talk to each one of them, see if they could live with it. If they wanted some changes, we’d see what we could do.

It turned out, frankly, that I thought it seemed to be working reasonably well, but some of the JOs felt that we were rotating too frequently, because they felt they were just getting a handle on the new assignment, and then they’d be moved out into another section. So we said, “Okay.” Then we made it three rotations rather than four throughout the tour, and that seemed to work out best for everyone concerned.

Q: Was the section able to make much contribution to the political or economic reporting?

RASPOLIC: As the section, yes, I think, because we tried to encourage the JOs to do some reporting for the other sections. One of our officers, who started off as an admin cone officer, now has an econ assignment in the economic bureau here in the Department, and he’s switching cones to econ. He used to do some econ reporting for the econ section while he was in the consular section in Guangzhou. Some of his reporting would be based on things that came up during the course of interviews with Chinese citizens over visa matters, and some of them would just be based on his reporting on economic activities that were highlighted in the local press, and some of it would then be tied in with some field work, perhaps, that he had done. He was an excellent reporter.

We had other officers who did non-consular reporting. One fellow did quite a long and very interesting piece on Muslims in Guangzhou. We had another officer who was admin cone, who did quite a bit of food-market research and tried to chart the course of a mild inflation that was going on, watching the price of various things as the prices invariably went up. The prices never seemed to go down.

Q: No! (Laughs)

RASPOLIC: I think maybe the world wasn’t waiting with anxious breath for some of our reporting, but we did try to give the JOs non-consular experience also.

Also I tried to make sure that the JOs were involved when important people came to town and we had to set up control rooms or whatever. I must say, in three years in Guangzhou, we only had two CODELs [congressional delegations], so you can see. But on the other hand, we did have Vice President Bush come through town. We closed the consular section for a day, other than we had one officer handling emergency ACS cases, and that was it. We felt we could not close that, but we certainly closed everything else. That officer who was handling the ACS cases was actually writing thank-you notes for the Vice President at the same time. (Laughs) Everyone else was down in the control room and working very hard.

We also set up a series of orientation trips for the JOs to travel in China. We used our travel budget that way. This was all on official business. We would send them to the embassy for two days to see how the consular section there functioned, and then to the other consulates for a day each, to see how they functioned there. So it worked out very, very well, I think. We always knew whose turn it was next to go on the orientation trips.

Q: It sounds like you had a well-organized program for the care and feeding of the young officers.

RASPOLIC: We tried. You never succeed with all of them, and you never get through to all of them, but I think we did pretty well, considering what we had to work with.

“As an American citizen, we have to protect her rights, even though she is totally unaware that we’re trying to protect her rights. . . . The Chinese were willing to declare her incapable of making decisions on her own. So with that in hand, then we were able legally to step in and make arrangements on her behalf.”

Adapting to a Highly Unusual American Citizens Services [ACS] Case:
Q: How did you get along with the local officials there from the consular group?

RASPOLIC: Quite well. I think we had a reasonably healthy relationship. We did not see each other all that often. We really only saw each other when there were problems or at social functions, but our relations were really very, very cordial. I knew that I could always call on them when I did have a problem, and I would always receive a very cooperative response.

We had a very bad ACS case toward the end of my time in Guangzhou, and the ministry people could not have been more helpful.

Q: What was the problem?

RASPOLIC: There was a lady, an American citizen, who was married to a British citizen, and she lived in London. Apparently the lady had a history of psychiatric problems. Of course, hindsight is wonderful. We found this out after the fact. The first thing we knew about her, she was in a town near Guangzhou, about 40 miles west of Guangzhou, called Foshan. The authorities there were reporting her as perhaps being ill. “Perhaps”—they had her locked up in a hospital in the director’s office. And would we please come and investigate.

We sent off one of the JOs to see her. (Laughs) Fortunately, it was a good choice of JOs, which I didn’t know at the time; he just happened to be available. He once had worked in Silver Hill, which is a psychiatric institution in Connecticut, so he at least knows a psycho when he sees one! (Laughs)

The lady had come to China to find the inner meaning and inner truth. Someone in her family had died, and she had inherited something like $15,000 or $20,000. She had brought all the money with her to Hong Kong, and had the money transferred into Chinese foreign exchange certificates, of all things, in Hong Kong, transferred directly to the Bank of China in Foshan. For some reason or another, she had read about Foshan before and knew about Foshan, and wanted to go to Foshan. This lady arrived with $20,000 in the bank in Foshan. She probably had more money than the entire city budget, and it was all in her name. She was staying in a hotel, and she then started acting very strangely. She painted a mustache on her face and was parading around the hotel. She’d get undressed in the hotel room with the hotel door open. I mean, not in China! Not in China! No, no, no!

Q: Maybe St. Tropez or something. (Laughs)

RASPOLIC: But not in China, no. I think she stole a table knife. She claimed it was a table knife; the hotel claimed it was a carving knife. Stole it from the kitchen and slept with it under her pillow. Just a series of rather bizarre things. The effect was completely wrong.

So they had put her in a mental institution. The Chinese wanted us to get her out, and we kept saying, “She’s an American citizen. We cannot force her to leave. If you want her out, you’re going to have to make arrangements to take her.” Under our regulations, we have to protect her rights.

Q: This is an argument that is going on on a daily basis somewhere in the world.

RASPOLIC: Absolutely. As an American citizen, we have to protect her rights, even though she is totally unaware that we’re trying to protect her rights. So we went around and around and around. This started in early June. At one point, the Chinese said they would sedate her, take her to the Shenzhen border. Shenzhen is a special economic zone right on the border between Guangdong Province and Hong Kong. They would put her in a van. They wanted us to send a vice consul to Foshan to ride in the van with her, sedated, to the border. They would take her out, put her in a wheelchair, and the vice consul would then wheel the wheelchair across the border to Hong Kong. We said, “Yoo hoo! No, no, no, no, no. We’re not doing this at all.”

Their idea of getting rid of her was to take her to Hong Kong, not send her back to her home in London, because it was so much cheaper for them. The Chinese will not spend money on anything that they don’t have to, and certainly not foreign exchange certificates.

Then we contacted Hong Kong, and Hong Kong said if this lady comes down to Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong law, there is nothing they can do for her. They cannot hospitalize her unless she voluntarily commits herself, because she would not have committed any act that would be contrary to Hong Kong law, and she would not be a threat to either herself or society.

So we knew full well that if this lady was on her own in Hong Kong, what she would do is turn around and come back to China. So around and around and around. The family in London was no help at all.

Finally, after enormous, enormous, enormous finagling and dealing with the British Embassy in Beijing and dealing with the family through our embassy in London, we made arrangements. The Chinese were willing to declare her incapable of making decisions on her own. So with that in hand, then we were able legally to step in and make arrangements on her behalf. We had the family’s permission. The husband was so touching, he was really wonderful. He permitted us to use her money to pay for her way, for her medevac. Very thoughtful to the bitter end.

But to get her out, we could not even send her out on a plane that transited Hong Kong, because for one thing, she would have to transfer planes in Hong Kong. It would be a stretcher case, because she would have to be sedated and escorted all the way back to London. If she transferred planes, Hong Kong immigration would consider her to have attempted to enter Hong Kong, and therefore they would not accept the mainland Chinese psychiatric evaluation that she was incompetent. So we had to find a flight that got her out directly, bypassing Hong Kong, back to London. We had to send her up to Beijing on CAC and have her transfer to a British Airways flight, and then go back to London that way.

First we hired one nurse to come up from Hong Kong to escort her all the way back to London, and British Airways announced that she couldn’t fly unless she had two nurses, so we had to hire a second one. That was at the last minute, we got this nurse. This all happened during the very week that I was transferring from Guangzhou to Beijing, so I was making all the arrangements in Guangzhou. Then I flew up and moved to Beijing and was there for her arrival when she came up. I went out to meet the plane.

It turned out that the “wonderful” psychiatric institution in Foshan did not supply sufficient sedatives to the nurses to last them for the entire trip to London. I only found this out 45 minutes before the flight was due to leave Beijing, so we went running around. Fortunately there’s an airport clinic in Beijing, and they happened to have, because we were still in China, exactly the same kind of sedative that they’d been using down in Guangzhou. So we bought out their entire supply and sent it along, just in case. (Laughs) It worked out just as well, because apparently the flight was delayed at a couple of points along the line.

When last seen, she was ambulatory when she arrived in London, and British Airways wanted to take her to a hospital for “a check up” at the psychiatric hospital. She refused to go, and walked out of the airport on her own steam, and has never been seen since. (Laughs) I mean, her family has seen her. She went home, but she, fortunately, never came back to China.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Peace Corps
Pakistan, Thailand, Tunisia—Peace Corps staff
Joined the Foreign Service 1973
Lyon, France—Vice consul 1974–1976
Seoul, South Korea—Vice consul 1976–1978
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—Consul 1978–1980
Guangzhou, China (PRC)—Consul 1983–1986
Beijing, China (PRC)—Consul general 1986–1988