The Long Game

Jim Mullinax ’90 is building the framework for a better world through the Foreign Service.

It’s about 8:30 a.m. in Chengdu, China, and Consul General Jim Mullinax ’90 is at work in his home office, chatting with an interviewer via Skype. After two years in this post, he has made his home in the laidback capital city that serves as the nerve center and travel hub of the region.

Under the authority of the United States Embassy in Beijing, Jim is the highest-ranking American Foreign Service officer in Southwest China, which includes the Sichuan Province, Guizhou, Yunnan, Chongqing, and Tibet—about a quarter of the country’s total area—and more than 200 million people.

“My role here is to represent America and American values in China,” he says. “We’re trying to tell a story about what America is, how we want people to understand America, and what we’re doing out here.”

Jim oversees the operations of a full-service consulate, providing assistance to Americans visiting the region and Chinese citizens heading to the U.S., in addition to security and public affairs offices, political and economic analysts, cultural and educational exchange programs, and the activities of agencies such as the Commerce Department, Peace Corps, and Agriculture Department.

I wanted to do something that I felt was meaningful, that was about something a lot bigger than just my own self."

– Jim Mullinax ’90

He first visited Chengdu as one of about 30 Puget Sound students in the 1990–91 PacRim cohort. Amid a year of study and travel throughout Asia, he and his classmates met with U.S. diplomats at numerous embassies, including then-Ambassador to China James Lilley, just a year after the Tiananmen Square protests—and Jim got a glimpse of his future.

“Our group spent about a month in Chengdu, studying at Sichuan Normal University,” he says. “We had a class in Chinese art, so we would go to museums and galleries. We’d learn about pottery and ceramics and bronzes and Chinese paintings, and we had a chance to meet with the people from the American consulate at that time. I never imagined that I would be back, but here I am, 30 years later—and now I’m the consul general.”

Jim may not have known that this would become his professional life when he stepped onto campus as an 18-year-old, but at least one person saw his potential for statesmanship. His advisor, political science professor Maria Chang, planted the seed early on that he consider joining the Foreign Service.

“At its core, the Foreign Service is about building relationships and promoting mutual understanding. That was really appealing,” Jim says. “I wanted to do something that I felt was meaningful, that was about something a lot bigger than just my own self. I felt like working for the United States government, working to promote U.S. values and U.S. interests abroad ... it’s something I feel good about.”

Jim took the Foreign Service exam while on that PacRim trip—in the consulate in Osaka, Japan—but he wasn’t welcomed into the diplomatic fold just yet. “I was very fortunate to pass the written part,” he says. “When I came back to the U.S., I went for the oral exams, and I failed miserably. Totally crashed and burned.” But the people who proctored the exam were encouraging. “They said, ‘Look. You’re 22. Go out and get some work experience, go to grad school. Come back in a few years.’ So, that’s what I did.”

Jim speaking to the press in Chengdu
Jim speaking to the press in Chengdu.

He worked in elections administration in Olympia, Wash., for about a year, then headed to Ohio University, where he earned a master’s degree in comparative politics with a focus on Southeast Asia. He took the Foreign Service exam again, passing both the written and oral exams, and was offered a job at the State Department as one of about 50 in an entry-level cohort of new diplomats. After just a few months of orientation and training, he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines as a consular officer. “I started in March,” he says, “and my first day on the job in Manila was August 1, 1994, which happened to be my birthday.”

After two years in Manila, Jim was assigned to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he served as an economic counselor during the Asian financial crisis. “I was struck by just how closely tied the economic and political issues were,” he says. “Suharto, who had been in power for over 30 years, and his family, it seemed like it would be impossible for them to be overthrown. But because of the economic crisis, everything just fell apart. People were out on the streets. He was forced to step down. There was a transition to democracy. It was amazing, what happened there. I was so grateful to have the chance to see it from the ground, as it was happening.”

That experience inspired Jim to become more involved in economic policy issues. He returned to the State Department, spent a year in economic training programs, and went to work in the Office of Monetary Affairs, dealing with debt relief and International Monetary Fund programs.

“A lot of the countries in Africa during the 1980s and ’90s were taking on incredible amounts of debt relative to the size of their economies,” Jim says. “There was no way they were ever going to be able to pay it back. Attempting to pay it back was basically depriving the government of any opportunity to provide services to the people. Being involved in that program was an opportunity to help some of these countries to get a little bit of a fresh start. More importantly, one of the requirements for participating in the debt relief program was these countries had to create plans in consultation with local civil-society groups on how they were going to spend the savings from the debt relief programs. In a lot of these countries, there was no tradition of consultation with civil society, and in some cases, there wasn’t even a civil society. So, in order to actually participate in these programs and get the benefits, the governments involved had to find ways to engage with the people. To me, that’s a core U.S. value. Power to govern comes from the consent of the governed.”

This is where U.S. and Foreign Service officers can shine: as facilitators, role models, and champions. “We helped to create mechanisms that encourage the development of civil society,” says Jim. “Would it have happened without us? I don’t know, but certainly we helped to make it happen. We helped to give these organizations, these people, a voice.”

But diplomacy is a long game. Seeds planted today may take years or generations to grow. “You never really get to the finish line,” Jim says. “Everything that you’re doing is laying bricks to build something. So, if you are waiting for success to be big—world peace—we’re probably not going to get there in my lifetime. It’s important to focus on the small steps. That’s how we make a better world.”

For Jim, small steps include traveling to Tibetan areas of Sichuan to talk with local business owners about economic conditions and security issues; meeting with local offi- cials and business leaders to discuss U.S. trade policy; hosting U.S. authors, poets, and musicians in the region to share their work; facilitating academic exchanges to research renewable energy; accompanying the mayor of Sacramento and a delegation including staff members of the Sacramento Kings basketball team to Chongqing to promote trade and educational exchanges between the two cities; and myriad other tasks.

Though part of the job, experiences like these are also perks of life in the Foreign Service, and Jim and his family are making the most of them. In each new post, Jim looks for a local choir or music group to join, inspired by some of his favorite memories as an Adelphian. The last several years, he and his wife, Tzu-I Chuang Mullinax, a well-known food writer and cook, have explored China’s eclectic and delicious food scene, prompting a new hobby: running marathons. Raising his sons Theo and Oliver keeps Jim running, too, and helps put things in perspective.

“Our relationship with China is crucially important,” he says. “In a lot of ways, I feel like the things I’m doing on a daily basis are contributing to building better understanding between our people, to creating ways to resolve our differences that don’t involve fighting. The steps may be tiny, but we’re building the relationships, we’re building the framework to allow good things to happen. I’m proud to be a part of that.”


By Sarah Stall
Photos courtesy of Jim Mullinax ’90
Published July 31, 2019