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Islander named to legendary Committee on U.S.-China Relations

  - Contributed photo
— image credit: Contributed photo

As the world turns its attention toward the Olympic Games in Beijing this week, it is easy to forget that not all that many years ago, China was essentially forbidden to all outsiders. Since 1913, when the United States first formally recognized the Government of the Republic of China, the relationship between the two nations has been rocky. Armed conflicts, ideological differences, diplomatic breakdowns and cultural differences have made permanent diplomatic relations illusive. Yet it was a seemingly small and personal gesture that brought the nations back to the table in the 1970s. That gesture, in the form of an invitation to a game of ping pong, set in motion the famous visit by former President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. The famous game and its results are credited not to a government agency but to the private, nonprofit National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Island resident and attorney, Nelson Dong, was appointed in May to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR or Committee), perhaps the most influential group involved in the ongoing effort to create understanding between the two world giants. For over 40 years, the Committee has been the leading private national organization with in-depth knowledge and expertise in U.S.-China relations.

Its membership is a peerless list of world diplomats, economists and former top government officials. Current Committee members include former U.S. Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Carla Hills, a former Cabinet member and the primary U.S. negotiator of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Other members include Martin Feldstein, the George F. Baker Professor of Economics at Harvard University and President Reagan’s chief economic adviser.

The work of this select group of public and private citizens dates back 40 years. Its most prominent and recognizable member, former Secretary of State Kissinger, a Nobel Prize winner, is credited with facilitating the era of ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ that began when American and Chinese ping pong players met to compete in 1971.

The members of the Committee represent many viewpoints but share the belief that productive U.S.-China relations require ongoing public education, face-to-face contact and the open exchange of ideas.

The goals of the group have shifted over time to address the ever-changing relationship of the two powers.

“But what remains clear [over time] is that the need for understanding between the United States and China is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” Dong said.

The nonprofit group does not conduct its work alone, he pointed out. There are many actors in the work between the two countries, he said. The national committee is just one of them. Each brings different actions and skills to the ongoing dialogue. But, he acknowledges, the Committee is a heavyweight.

“Because of its history and senior diplomatic membership, the Committee brings a certain gravitas to the table,” he said.

The work of the nonprofit group is funded by contributions from private individuals and corporations and a healthy endowment.

Despite his extensive experience in matters related to China and trade, Dong was surprised to be nominated for an appointment. Dong, however, is uniquely well-qualified to be a member of the prestigious committee. Dong holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and an A.B. from Stanford University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

He is a partner of the international law firm of Dorsey & Whitney LLP, where he is an internationally recognized technology business attorney and co-chair of the firm’s Asian law practice group. Dong frequently speaks with trade and business groups across the United States and in China about the growing business opportunities for investment and manufacturing in China and Asia. He was a member of the President’s Export Council Subcommittee, the nation’s highest advisory group on U.S. export control policy. Dong is also a director of the Committee of 100, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes better U.S.-China relations.

“Mr. Dong brings an important personal and geographical perspective to the National Committee,” said Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee. “Nelson is not only an internationally recognized trade and technology business attorney with over two decades of professional dealings with China, but his location in the state of Washington has great significance in economic relations with China.”

Born in California in 1949, Dong is a first-generation ethnic Chinese American. His father, Eugene Y. Dong, came to the United States from China in 1923, and his mother, Nancy Y. Dong, came in 1948. Dong attended high school in Sacramento — a school that was very integrated for its time, he said.

His parents wanted him to be a physician. They wanted him to have a secure career, he explained. He studied German in college so that he could more easily read medical research journals from Germany.

But it was not meant to be.

Instead, he thought about civil rights and constitutional issues as he grew up in the 1960s. He was named a White House Fellow in 1978 and he participated in key cases that involved presidential powers and the Constitution. Later, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice and served as a U.S. Attorney in Boston.

He returned to California where he began his journey from litigator to business lawyer to international relations. He lived and worked near Silicon Valley as software began its upward trajectory. His work grew to include intellectual property and technology transactions.

He moved to Mercer Island in 2000 when he joined the Seattle office of Dorsey & Whitney.

Family is very important to Dong. He is married to Diane Wong and has two sons, William, 19, and Philip, 22, both Mercer Island High School graduates. He is especially proud that his elder son has chosen a line of work similar to his. Philip Dong took language classes in Mandarin from Gordon Davenport at the high school and went on to major in Asian studies at Tufts University, where he graduated last June. He has made plans to work in Asia as a volunteer in the coming months.

His mother, now 86, often spends time with Dong and his family on the Island. At the end of a long work day last week, she was waiting for her son to take her to a hair appointment.

Each day, Dong speaks to people across the world. On one day last week, he had projects going on simultaneously in Iraq, China and Sweden.

“It has been a privilege to be an international lawyer,” he said. “I am not only involved in business, but also the cultures of countries around the world.

“It is quite a rich way to live and learn,” he said of his work, adding that he has good friends from all over the planet. “One part of having an international clientele is the travel; I keep a bag packed at all times and always have my passport ready.”

As Dong explains the arc of his life work, there is an underlying theme of respect.

He remembers being in his high-rise office in downtown Seattle on Sept. 11. He watched the news as e-mails of condolence came in from friends from around the world.

“There were expressions of sadness and grief, and of fear,” he said.

Despite the high stakes of his work, Dong is humble and composed. However, his office, high in a sleek downtown tower, reveals the life of an extremely busy lawyer: the usual stacks of documents, law journals and framed awards. There are photos of his handsome family and original Chinese prints. There is also a framed front page of a newspaper from a February 1878 edition of the San Francisco Morning (Daily) Call on the wall facing his desk. The main story is entitled, “The Chinese Problem,” and is about how whites viewed Chinese immigrants in the most brutally racist terms. The rhetoric in such journalism of the day helped to fuel anti-Asian laws that had profound legal, political, social and cultural implications for both China and the United States (particularly in the West, including Washington state) well into the late 20th century.

It is a familiar story of mistrust and misunderstanding; a cautionary tale of the past and for the present.

“It reminds me of the work that, sadly, is never done,” he said.

For more information about the work of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, go to www.ncuscr.org.

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