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China-US Relations--A Generational View

We escorted all kinds of US delegations around the country: swimmers, basketball players, major orchestras, scientists, scholars, businessmen. I met Chou En-lai and Madame Mao--reminisce if appropriate. While the central core of our tie with China was strategic and political, we were beginning to form the other strands that make up a solid international relationship: trade, culture, science, and sport. A military element was to come later. In 1973 Sino-US relations resembled a single line, hand-cranked field telephone, with Henry Kissinger at one end and Chou En-lai at the other. Since then it has become a broadband fiber optic cable with a wide range of messages passing back and forth, many of them beyond the control or purview of either government.

The personnel changed, but that reality persisted, and our ties grew and grew. President Nixon was out of office in August of 1974. Premier Chou En-lai died the next year and Chairman Mao in 1976. Madame Mao was arrested within a week of Mao’s death. In 1979 the Carter Administration tied the final knot, and established formal diplomatic relations. Our Liaison Office became the US Embassy. Deng Xiaoping, now fully restored to power, had a very successful visit to the United States.

Strategic concerns remained uppermost in all our minds, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 inspiring for the first time, the urge for relations between our military establishments. I was working in the National Security Council Staff at the time, and was loaned to the Pentagon to help Defense Secretary Harold Brown with the details of docking the two armed forces, which had last faced each other over gunsights in Korea. In a little more than a year, the leaders of the two defense establishments had exchanged visits, military attaches were working in both Washington and Beijing, and a modest program of technical assistance, designed by the then Undersecretary of Defense William Perry during a trip to China we took together in 1980, was underway.

Meanwhile in China, Deng Xiaoping put in place the economic reforms that were to open large portions of the economy to free enterprise, foreign investment, and international trade. China joined the massive surge of Asian growth and became its leading performer. Since 1978, China has more quadrupled its Gross National Product, in the process bringing about the most dramatic and rapid increase in living standards the world has ever seen. China’s growth, like any other success, has created a whole series of new problems.

As the Chinese economy grew, pressures for personal freedom grew as well. Deng’s reforms allowed people to travel, to take jobs in other parts of the country. China opened up internally. The tight, drab, tense society of Cultural Revolution days was replaced by a brighter energetic boom culture with burgeoning prosperity and rampant materialism, particularly in the coastal areas most affected by foreign investment.

A middle class was forming, which began to own a significant portion of the economy and wanted more consultation in government decisions affecting its interests. The student body was affected by these trends, pressured to learn in order to gain earning power, confused by the collapse of Maoist ideology and the lack of any indigenous belief system to put in its place, and inspired by the wave of democratization in Asia which struck the Philippines in 1986, Taiwan in 1987, and Korea in 1987.

In the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of students converged on Tiananmen square to protest official corruption and the lack of Party attention to political reform. The cameras of world television cameras were there, originally placed to record the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to China to normalize relations after two decades of confrontation and near war. They stayed to record an even bigger story--days of confused student demands and activity, uncertain government response, and finally, on the night of June 3-4, violent armed suppression.