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China, Mongolia Trip Report

By Jimmy Carter

Rosalynn and I flew with Carter Center trustee Richard Blum on his Gulfstream from Georgia to China, accompanied by Terry Adamson, another of our trustees and Executive Vice-president of National Geographic Society. In Beijing we met John Hardman, Chuck Costello, Yawei Liu, Jamie Horsley, and Brian and Nancy Duperreault. Brian is CEO of ACE Insurance Company, one of the sponsors of our China project. Congressman and Mrs. Joe Hoeffel (D-PA) also joined us.

At the invitation of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, for the last four years The Carter Center has helped monitor and improve elections in the small villages of China. Best estimates are that there are 800,000 of them, within which 900 million "peasants" live. For the first time in the history of China, about 600 million of these villagers are now experiencing at least some aspects of real democracy.

After Deng Xiaoping and I normalized diplomatic relations in 1979, rapid economic change began almost immediately. He launched a "household responsibility system" that same year, which permitted farm families to work 15 percent of the arable land as their own enterprise, and to have one small profit-making project such as repairing bicycles, making clay pots or nails, shoeing animals, or raising up to five sheep, goats, pigs, or mink. Deng urged Rosalynn and me to come to witness the results of this experiment, which we did in 1981. The next year, Deng had the constitution changed to permit some villages to choose their officials by direct election, and in 1987 the National People's Congress passed a law spelling out, on a trial basis, the procedures to be used.

These early experiments were very popular, and in 1997 we were invited to assist the government in standardizing procedures for nomination and election of candidates and to recommend changes in the law. Under the direction of Li Peng (Chairman of the important Standing Committee of the National People's Congress), a new and permanent organic law was passed in November 1998 to elect village committees, which called for universal registration, citizen (not Communist Party) nomination of candidates, secret voting, three-year terms, and substantial authority over local affairs. Officials at higher levels (township, county, province, and national) are still selected indirectly by People's congresses that are essentially Communist Party-dominated caucuses that include a very small portion of the populace. Although no definitive national assessment has been made, it is estimated that 1/3 of the villages are in compliance with the law, 1/3 have adopted a portion of the new procedures, with the other 1/3 (mostly in the western provinces) not yet complying.

There is little doubt that the democratic process, where respected, has strengthened accountability and reduced dissent and corruption, given the villagers a sense of community pride, and helped provide the framework for local business projects. Both villagers and Chinese leaders are very proud of this program, but there has been some growing contention between local party leaders and the newly elected officials in the villages.

My first responsibility on this trip, after we arrived in Beijing, was to give one of the inaugural addresses to a wide-ranging 3-day symposium on "Villager Self-government and Rural Development," sponsored by The Carter Center and the Ministry of Civil Affairs and conducted by a large group of distinguished political scientists and other experts from China and a dozen foreign countries. The other initial address was by the Minister of Civil Affairs, Duoji Cairang, a Tibetan who happens to have been our host when Rosalynn and I first visited Lhasa in 1987. He extolled the village election system but also reminded the audience that the Communist Party always had a role to play. My speech was mostly constructive criticism, quoting top Chinese leaders (Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng) and pointing out how the system, so far, has not met their commitments.

A key question, discussed extensively in the conference, is whether the proven results in the villages will be extended to the township and higher levels. In 1998, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said, "I am in favor of democratic elections for all positions, including that of premier and president..." but added that he would need to study what steps the government would take to elevate the electoral process to higher levels. Two years later, when questioned on the same subject, he replied, "The sooner, the better."

I suggested a long-term plan to use the principles of village elections in choosing the leaders of all the towns and townships of China. Lately, though, there has been some obvious tightening up by top leaders against this concept. This could change with the advent of new and younger leaders in the near future, because of the popularity of democracy at the village level. If The Carter Center can help ensure the success of this program, then there is a better chance that political freedom will follow the extraordinary degree of economic freedom achieved during the last two decades.

We were in China under the sponsorship of the foreign relations committee of the National People's Congress, chaired by Zeng Jian-hui, who came to Plains last year to extend a personal invitation. (In the past, a semiofficial NGO had always sponsored foreign visits.) Later in the day we met with this committee in the Great Hall and had a long and wide-ranging discussion. After reviewing normalization of diplomatic relations, village elections, Taiwan, Korea, and a number of other predictable subjects, I raised questions about their failure to resolve the issue of Tibet and the arrest of Christians and other worshipers whose congregations have failed or refused to register with the government. I tried to convince them that these were the two issues that arouse the animosity and distrust of many Americans. This resulted in a vociferous but mutually respectful argument, which continued during a lavish meal in their new Macao pavilion.

Later, we met with Chairman Li Peng, a strong conservative but renowned political survivor, with whom I last debated issues in 1997. He had been informed in advance of our exchange on Tibet and religion, so we decided not to repeat these arguments. Instead, we discussed Korea, political philosophy, general similarities and differences between our two governments, and the economic situation in China. That night, we joined Minister Duoji Cairang for a relaxed and delightful supper at the Grand Hotel.

The next morning (Tuesday), we met with a group of executives of American corporations, explained our democracy project in China, thanked those who have been helpful to us, urged them all to increase their support, and then had a general discussion of issues that they raised. Following lunch with Ambassador Sandy Randt, we flew to Shanghai, where remarkable changes are taking place. Officials are all community boosters, quoting statistics and proudly displaying evidences of extraordinary economic growth and prosperity during the past 10 years.

The next morning we drove to Zhouzhuang, in Jiangsu province, where we witnessed the election of a village chairman and four other committee members. Although more prosperous than many villages because of its proximity to Shanghai, tourism in the ancient Venice-like village, and its being a market for silk, the election procedures were similar to others we have observed. There were 920 qualified voters, of whom 36 were members of the Communist Party. On August 30, there had been 67 candidates for chairman and 166 for committee members! 801 voters cast ballots, and the top two candidates for chairman and top five for member were nominated. (A woman received the highest number of votes, 391.) However, most of the seven final candidates were party members. 860 (93 percent) were present to make the final choices. After brief campaign speeches, there were questions about an activity center for the elderly, delayed completion of a kindergarten, and the destruction of a public toilet in a construction project. Then the people filed forward to vote in private booths, the votes were counted individually and aloud, and the winners were announced, applauded, and took office. This was the seventh such election in Zhouzhuang.

After a banquet with the local and provincial officials and a walking and boat tour of the village, we returned to Shanghai for another banquet with the American Chamber of Commerce.

On Thursday, we visited the Shanghai museum and then flew back to Beijing for a meeting with President Ziang Zemin, who had just returned from a visit with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. This was in the Hong Kong Pavilion of the Great Hall. He was excited about his trip, and reported that he urged the North Koreans to resume negotiations with both South Korea and the United States. (That same evening, Kim Jong Il announced that talks would resume with S. Korea.) I gave him the best information I had on the village election project, that about 1/3 seemed to be complying, 1/3 experimenting, and 1/3 not really involved. Both he and Chairman Zeng Jianhui said they would push compliance with the '98 law.

A persistent concern of Jiang and other top political leaders in Beijing is what they consider anti-China attacks from a group of American conservatives who are now and always have been committed to Taiwan as the "one China." They believe that this is an orchestrated effort. I didn't argue about this, but reemphasized the two main issues that cause most of the legitimate criticisms: arrest of Christians and failure to have direct talks with the Dalai Lama to resolve the Tibetan issue. This was an old discussion between us, but Jiang listened carefully and responded as usual that no person was ever arrested because of personal religious beliefs, only organizations (congregations) that violated the law. He also reiterated their claim that direct talks with the Dalai Lama or his representatives were dependent only on an unequivocal public statement by His Holiness that "there is only one China, etc."

I found the president to be much more self-assured and relaxed than in our previous meetings, looking forward to a visit by President Bush, and grateful for our previous and present role in China. It was interesting that he was not reluctant to enumerate mistakes made by Chairman Mao Zedong, but is filled with undeviating admiration for Deng Xiaoping.

On the way to the airport, Chairman Zeng asked if The Carter Center would accept an official invitation to send a delegation for unrestricted assessment of the religious and Tibetan issues. We will be considering how best to respond to this offer.

On the way to Hong Kong, I decided to accompany Dick Blum and John Hardman to Mongolia, which required a number of rapid changes in our plans. During two days in Hong Kong, we met with a wide array of financial and political leaders to whom we described the work of The Carter Center, emphasizing the village election project. These included Li Ka-Shing, Robert Kuok, and C. H. Tung, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who hosted a banquet for us. They were unanimous in their assurance that the "one nation-two systems" was working well, with no uncomfortable encroachment from Beijing on their personal or political freedoms. This may be a model for ultimate resolution of the Taiwan issue. Like Shanghai, Hong Kong has been totally transformed and is bustling with shipping and financial activity, but it seems vulnerable to competition from nearby mainland China.

Very early the next morning, Saturday, we flew to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where Prime Minister Enkhbayar and Foreign Minister Erdenchuluun met us. During the next two days we had long discussions with these two leaders and, after returning to the capital city, with President Bagabandi and the Speaker of the Parliament. Mongolia is the only small country totally surrounded by two permanent members of the UN Security Council. All the leaders are very proud of their proven commitment to democracy, but concerned that they might be intimidated both politically and economically (especially by China) while the rest of the world ignores their precarious position. They especially desire some overt recognition from U.S. leaders, ranging from brief but publicized courtesy calls in Washington to a personal visit to their country. This was one of the primary reasons for my going, but also to accompany Dick Blum in his investigation of the cashmere
industry and the plight of the nomad herders.

After arriving in Mongolia we flew directly to Dalandzagad, about 320 miles south and in the heart of the Gobi desert. On arrival at a remote tourist site in the desert, we were assigned quarters in "gers," superbly designed houses made of folding walls, like lattice fences, wrapped in a layer of homemade felt. The smallest have four walls and the largest (a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar) had 10 walls. A herder's ger can be disassembled in about an hour, folded into a small package, loaded on camels, and re-erected on a new grazing site. The next morning we drove over tiny dirt trails through the vast desert, with the provincial governor as our guide. With less than 2 inches of rain a year (Georgia gets 50 inches), the patches of grass were seldom more than an inch high. One of the herder families had already moved 10 times this year, searching for better grazing. He had about 1,000 " cattle" (a word that includes cows, sheep, goats, camels, and horses), about half of them goats. He, his wife, and one small child tended them all. Three other children were away at school. Another younger herder worked only with his wife, again with his children at boarding school, and had about 200 goats, but his grazing area was much better. He seemed to be either better off or more of a spendthrift, with a satellite and TV, powered by a small solar panel. Some herders use windmills, but the powerful winds tear off the blades.

Wool and hair are their major sources of income, with fine cashmere fibers being most important. For instance, wool from a sheep is worth about 30 cents a year, while a goat's cashmere brings about $8. The richest family in the province has 1,200 goats, with 200 needed for bare survival. There is an average of one herder family for each 10 square kilometers. When questioned, Governor Sumya said he had never known of an argument between two families over grazing rights! Medical care is almost nonexistent, and their diet consists of meat, cheese, and curdled milk - often fermented and tasting like cheese. The extreme winter cold kills many animals, makes cashmere grow well, and apparently controls troublesome organisms, so the people seem healthy. They are extremely hospitable, not timid with us strangers, proud of their accomplishments, self-sufficient, im-mersed completely in their environment, fully at the mercy of the seasons, local markets, the threat of overgrazing, with a seeming top priority being education of their children. Neither family had visited Ulaanbaatar during the past 20 years.

The price of cashmere this year has varied from $22 to $30 per kilogram (enough for 3-1/2 sweaters), depending on the fineness of the fibers. There is an intense competition between Inner Mongolia (China) and Mongolia for the raw material and sales, with China producing about 75 percent of the world's supply of 1,200 tons each year. The factories in Ulaanbaatar have to compete with Chinese buyers, who cross the border to purchase cashmere from the Mongolian herders. The herders seemed convinced that it was in their long-term interest to market their goods in Mongolia, provided they can have a stable and competitive market. Dick Blum's interest is in the welfare of the nation and, these herders, and, of course, in making a good investment. John Hardman and I wanted to learn about health needs, and we will explore the advisability of our Global Development Initiative to help with a long-range plan for Mongolia's future.

With a severe typhoon sweeping through Japan, we had to detour into Seoul and then fly home on KAL and Delta.

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