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Jon Huntsman Jr. Speaks at Penn on US China relation Credit: Lu Shu

When Jon Huntsman Jr. was 11 years old, he visited the White House and met future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger revealed to Huntsman that he was traveling to China, and Huntsman, a former Chinese ambassador, speculates that this may have been Kissinger’s famed secret trip to China in 1971.

“It’s a state secret,” he said, imitating Kissinger’s well-known German accent. “I’m going to China.”

On Thursday, drawing laughter from about 300 in the hall that bears his father’s name, Huntsman asked, “Was I there at the start of the U.S.-China relationship?”

The 1987 College graduate, former Utah governor and 2012 presidential candidate was the inaugural speaker in the Center for the Study of Contemporary China’s new series of annual high-profile lectures. Huntsman discussed topics ranging from China’s modern economic growth to its centuries-old political history.

“It’s so easy in today’s political context to talk about what you’re going to do to China, as opposed to what you’re going to do with China,” Huntsman said. “For your generation, the conversation is going to be what we are going to do with China to make the world a better place.”

Students and faculty packed a 300-seat auditorium in Huntsman Hall to see one of Penn’s most high-profile graduates return to his alma mater. By 5:30 p.m., 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to start, the space was already more than half full. When the 6 p.m. start time rolled around, security guards were ushering the additional crowd that had packed both aisles to overflow rooms, where they watched a live stream of the event.

While some decided to leave, enough stuck around to fill two additional Huntsman Hall rooms. Huntsman himself originally entered the auditorium during the confusion.

“You’re leaving so soon?” he joked to those who had to relocate.

For 45 minutes, he touched on China’s recent leadership change and impending economic challenges, as well as what he took from his nearly two years of service as U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman then sat down with political science professor and Director of the CSCC Avery Goldstein for a more informal question and answer session. Goldstein — who teaches several courses on Chinese politics — drew on his own interests as well as student submissions for his questions. Huntsman also fielded questions directly from the audience.

Huntsman several times strayed from Chinese foreign policy, briefly discussing his presidential run and the discussion of China on the campaign trail.

“When did you once hear on the debate stage any kind of constructive dialogue about how we forge a 21st-century relationship with the most important diplomatic relationship we have in the world?” he asked.

When asked after the event by The Daily Pennsylvanian whether he would consider another run in 2016, the former governor remained noncommittal.

“I’m a private citizen,” Huntsman said. “If we can be in the mix there in terms of articulating new ideas, putting them forward as a private citizen, mission accomplished.… You always hold open the possibility for public service, but you don’t count on it.”

The event’s organizers were pleased with the turnout and Huntsman’s comments, especially his references to the thousands of years of Chinese history that influence China today, said CSCC Deputy Director and Law School professor Jacques deLisle.

Goldstein added that because of the event’s substantial turnout, the Center would consider a larger venue for next year’s event.

After the event, Huntsman added that for his relationship with Penn — he currently serves on the University’s Board of Trustees — he is “on unlimited contract, free of charge.” While he gives lectures and interacts with leaders around the world, he expressed his particular satisfaction with being able to return to campus.

“If ever one were to lose faith in the direction of the United States,” Huntsman said, “all they have to do is visit a campus.”

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