Matt Pottinger: From Pen to Politics
When Matt Pottinger, US National Security Council senior director for East Asia, led a US delegation to Beijing to attend the Belt and Road summit, had he ever thought of treating the security guard, who slapped him on face in a Starbucks in the same city more than a decade ago, to coffee?
Having studied Chinese at the University of Massachusetts and worked as a journalist in China for Reuters and then the Wall Street Journal for altogether seven years, Pottinger knows China inside out.
“He is a very, very intelligent person, and his Chinese is terrific,” said Rebecca Wang (pseudonym), a person who has known Pottinger for years.
Rebecca recalled that once Pottinger called a Chinese company for interview, and the person who answered the phone was astonished to find out that Pottinger was actually a foreigner when meeting him.
Chinese people who are familiar with Pottinger say he is a low-profile person and very nice to people around him, although he holds a tough attitude toward China.
“He doesn’t have a particularly positive perception of China,” said another person who knows Pottinger, but declined to be named.
Pottinger, 43, joined Reuters in 1998 before becoming a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing in 2001, covering wide range of topics from energy and environment to official corruption. He joined the Marines in 2005 despite being both over-aged and overweight. To get fit, he jogged on the Great Wall with a Marine from the United States Embassy in Beijing — overdoing it so much on one occasion that he ended up in an emergency room, according to a media report.
He then served in wars in Iraq as an intelligence officer and in Afghanistan as an adviser.
“(Pottinger) has an ideal, a target, a pursuit, and he is willing to act for all these,” said Rebecca, adding that Pottinger’s experiences showed that people could have many choices in their life.
“His experiences throw light on my life,” said Rebecca, who was then encouraged to switch away from her career path she took for many years.
People who are familiar with Pottinger also said he has a good memory and wide range of knowledge.
He reads a lot and it seems he knows everything, they said.
Fighting for values
Pottinger is widely regarded as a China hawk because of his critiques and public rhetoric against Beijing.
Like many Westerners who tend to criticize China’s democracy, he said his experiences in China make him value American democracy more. He once confronted security guards while digging into a corruption case many years ago, and was roughed up later. 
It's hard to pinpoint the genesis of his decision to join the Marines, but his career switch from pen to sword did somewhat contradict his love for democracy, which was often undermined by realities on the ground in war zones.
Fortunately, he didn’t give up his independent thinking a good reporter in him had developed. On his second Afghanistan deployment, he spearheaded an investigation into problems with the U.S. intelligence efforts, co-authoring with Major General Mike Flynn the critical 2010 report “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.”
A decade ago, when Rupert Murdoch offered to purchase Dow Jones & Co., the parent of the Wall Street Journal, Pottinger wrote a letter published on May 31, 2007 to shareholders of the company, arguing that the purchase will negatively affect the Journal’s impartiality and objectiveness.
“(Murdoch’s) mission is to blur the lines between church and state and infuse the blend with his own distinctive, lively brand of populist values,” Pottinger wrote.
He criticized Murdoch for trading off the independence of news organizations with smooth operation of his publishing ventures in China.
“China will be the biggest story of the 21st century. Its policies and progress must be understood and reported fearlessly,” he added.
Advising on China related issues
As his job is usually defined, Mr. Pottinger is supposed to collect the varying views on the Asia-Pacific region within the government, and help synthesize them into a coherent policy for his new boss, General McMaster.
According to China experts who have spoken to Pottinger, his views on China issues were hawkish but mainstream.
For example, he has warned against words such as “mutual respect” and “win-win solutions” being used on official occasions with China, as the phrases are viewed as codes for a Chinese sphere of influence in its region. 
 “Matt’s head is in the right place on most of these issues,” said Walter Lohman, the director of the Asian Studies Program at the Heritage Foundation, according to media reports.
However, the Washington Post cited Republican Asia experts as saying that Pottinger doesn’t have the mandate to run Asia policy all on his own.
According to New York Times, in a recent session in the Oval Office, a frustrated Pottinger watched as hard-liner Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner complaining to Mr. Trump that China was deliberately depressing its currency, which undercuts American goods (in fact, China has recently been trying to do the opposite). Pottinger drew Gary D. Cohn, who runs the National Economic Council and was standing nearby, into the conversation, and Cohn contradicted the other two men.
As observers have said, he will need all of those skills to succeed in the treacherous landscape of the Trump White House. But whether with his pen, his sword or his power, Mr. Pottinger is always fighting.

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