More Links in News & Events

President Carter Delivers Speech to Beijing (Peking) University

By Jimmy Carter

It is a special pleasure for me to return to China and to visit this great university, which is a powerful center that brings together some of China's brightest minds for progressive economic, scientific, political, and social thought.

It was here that the May 4th movement began among students in 1919, partially as a reaction against the decision at the Paris peace talks to transfer the former German concessions in Shantung province to Japan, instead of returning them to Chinese control. Chinese intellectuals wanted to strengthen their country and decided that China needed both science and democracy. What this meant was unclear, and the movement produced differing answers. Idealistic ambitions were soon drowned in the civil war, the war of resistance against Japan, and the following fervent revolution.

Debates concerning the definition of democracy have continued to this day.

I first came to your country in April 1949 as a young submarine officer to participate in naval exercises off the coast of some of your most important seaports. It was obvious then that the days of the Nationalist regime were numbered. Chiang Kai-shek left the mainland only a few months later, and the People's Republic of China was founded on Oct. 1, which happened to be my 25th birthday.

Twenty-three years later, in 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China and joined Chairman Mao Zedong in issuing what has come to be known as the Shanghai communiqué. Among other important points, it declared that there was only one China, but it didn't say which one. Many American leaders, including our presidents, continued to insist that full diplomatic relations should remain with Taiwan.

During 1978, I conducted intense negotiations with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, and we announced that full diplomatic relations would be established between our two nations on the first day of 1979. This was one of the wisest decisions I made during my time in the White House, and it has brought immeasurable economic, social, and political benefits to the people of China, the United States, and to others who value the maintenance of peace and stability in this region of the world.

On my several visits here during the past 22 years, I have enjoyed hours of discussion with Deng Xiaoping and his successors and have had an opportunity to visit many regions of your country to witness its economic progress and its dramatic moves toward a more open society. More freedom of worship, the movement of your people, the rights of free enterprise, and China's increasing involvement in the World Trade Organization and other international organizations have been very gratifying to me.

Among the issues that Deng Xiaoping discussed with me were his plans to initiate economic reforms and to encourage free and open elections within the small villages of China. The People's National Congress adopted a constitutional amendment in 1982, and a basic law was passed in 1987 to outline the principles by which this goal could be reached. The vice premier made it plain to me that small villages were not part of the overall communist party system, but he thought it would be beneficial to their own citizens and to higher governments to permit locally elected officials to manage their own affairs. Mr. Peng Zhen, former chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress, would repeatedly say that village elections were a seminar on democracy that all Chinese rural residents should experience. It was an important step for China on the eventual path to achieve full democracy.

Six years ago, The Carter Center was invited to assess progress in meeting Deng Ziaoping's original goals and to provide assistance and advice in standardizing electoral and governance procedures. Since then, The Carter Center has enjoyed a strong relationship with our partners at the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National People's Congress. The electoral law was revised in November 1998, and we have continued to observe this intriguing process. We also have been invited to observe the process of choosing National People's Congress representatives of townships and counties. In the summer, our Center sponsored a conference on the recent election of district National People's Congress deputies in Shenzhen. Chinese leaders also have come to the United States, as our guests, to witness the conduct of our electoral process. There is no doubt that we have learned from each other.

The Carter Center has never presumed to step beyond the bounds of our role, acting strictly as observers, making comments only when specifically requested to do so. It is not up to us to interfere in basic governmental decisions of your sovereign nation.

Some noted scholars argue that direct elections of public officials are not suitable for China, comparing your own stability and economic progress with that of India and Russia. The fact is that your great nation already has made the remarkable transition to a relatively open society with sustained economic growth, based primarily on reforms initiated during the past quarter century. There is no doubt that further political changes could be made, if desired, without any real threat to stability or the rule of law.

My personal belief is that the goals of accountability, transparency, and the maintenance of a stable and orderly society can best be reached when the people are given the right and responsibility of choosing their own leaders directly. It is beneficial for all citizens to feel that they are involved personally in the shaping of their own destiny and for leaders to know that their political futures depend upon honoring promises and meeting the legitimate needs of those who have put them in office.

This usually results in an easing of tensions, a spirit of voluntary teamwork, and an inclination to accept government decisions as coming from within one's own family. Although democratic government processes are sometimes fumbling and confusing, as in my own country, there is an innate capability for self-correction of mistakes and the peaceful accommodation of changing circumstances.

Contrary to the arguments of some scholars, there is no incompatibility between democracy and the rule of law, as proven in my country, Canada, throughout Europe, and in many other stable and prosperous nations in the world. Some, like South Korea, have had to face serious economic challenges brought about by global market changes, scarcity of raw materials, or inept management, but their resilience has been proven as their citizens and governments, as a unified team, have rallied to overcome the problems.

It is only in the proper melding of the people and their government, in a democracy, that elected leaders can afford to permit complete freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, unrestricted worship, movement from one place to another, the formation of trade unions to represent the interests of workers, unimpeded access to the Internet, and other ways to demonstrate free will and political human rights.

Of course, each sovereign nation must decide which of these goals it decides to reach, and when and how to achieve them.

From my own observations, the village elections in China have been remarkably successful and popular. There are still unanswered questions in some areas concerning the relationship between elected leaders and those appointed by higher officials, but most of these questions are being answered successfully. Political reform is a slow process, as has been proven in America, other countries, and even here in the village election process that began fifteen years ago.

Democracy is not a scary thing. It is, in essence, a set of procedures that all parties involved agree to observe. China's experience has proven this point. When called upon to elect their own leaders, the rural residents were suspicious at first, but they participated earnestly when they finally realized that this was indeed what the government was encouraging them to do. As a result of this massive participation, the provisional organic law of the villager committee was suddenly inadequate because it did not contain necessary procedures to secure free and fair competition and transparent governance. The law was revised in 1998 and, once again, needs to be amended.

Deng Xiaoping long ago declared that no basic reform of any kind could move forward without political reform. You have already taken early steps, and future decisions concerning democracy remain for your citizens and leaders.

When I met with President Jiang Zemin two years ago, he told me about his July 1 speech and described the theory of "three represents." He agreed with me that one of the best ways to fully realize the "three represents" was to allow people to choose their leaders in the best and most responsible manner.

So, 84 years since the May 4th movement, the Chinese debate on the merits of democracy is still ongoing. Beida is as always one of the most important forums of this discussion. I hope you will all participate in this debate and, as before, help to shape the future of your own nation.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top