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Visit to China

After leaving Liberia, we traveled to Beijing, where we met Sam Nunn (direct from Pyongyang and Seoul) and Mike Oksenberg, who was my National Security Advisor on China.

This was my fifth visit to China, including one in 1949 as a young submarine officer, but I hadn't been there since 1991. My main purposes for the trip were:

  • to learn as much as possible about current affairs in China from political leaders, scholars, and from villagers and peasants;
  • to discuss Tibet, religious freedom, and other human rights issues;
  • to help Chinese leaders understand mutual disagreements that have damaged Sino-American relations, in preparation for President Jiang Zemin's visit to the United States late in October;
  • to ascertain Chinese attitudes toward Korea;
  • and to explore possibilities for an expanded relationship for The Carter Center in Chinese village elections and other affairs.

Opportunities to learn: Our hosts, the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) arranged a formidable schedule, including extensive meetings with President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, National People's Congress Chairman Qiao Shi, National Security Advisor Liu Huaqiu, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, and Defense Minister Chi Haotian. I was invited by CPIFA Chairman Mei Zhaorong to deliver an address and to answer questions from an assembly of leaders from 22 universities and other institutions. I also accompanied Senator Sam Nunn to the Academy of Military Science, where he spoke, and then we discussed security and defense issues. Afterward, we flew to Jinan in Shandong province and drove to rural Zouping County, where Mike Oksenberg has done research for 10 years.

Surprising political diversity: Formerly there was only one standard government policy regarding important questions, but now there is a wide range of opinion. In long meetings with top leaders, we asked a stream of questions regarding such issues as talks with Tibetans, economic priorities, role of the National People's Congress, expansion of the direct election process above the village level, and the value of state owned enterprises vs. privatization. Substantial differences were expressed by the three top leaders concerning such issues as the role of people's parliaments, expansion of the direct election process, privatization of state owned enterprises, and talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Human rights: I discussed these issues at every meeting with political leaders, who are angry and perplexed at what they consider to be a failure of Americans to understand their special political and cultural circumstances and to acknowledge progress they have made. We spent a lot of time on the Tibet issue, with my reminding them that Deng Xiaoping had let me arrange for talks with the Dalai Lama in July 1989, that were prevented by the Tienanmen Square tragedy. The Chinese insist that they are ready to reschedule these talks, with the same prerequisite as before that the Dalai Lama acknowledge that he is not seeking Tibetan independence from China. Privately, the Dalai Lama agrees with this requirement, but his public statements are not clear enough to satisfy the leaders in Beijing.

There are two issues on which the Chinese will not yield:

  1. a challenge to their system of government by dissident groups that may lead to revolution and chaos, and
  2. the fragmentation of "One China" by the independence of Taiwan or Tibet.

These troubling caveats result in arbitrary detention and severe persecution of dissidents, in direct violation of international standards concerning human rights. Also, there are notable restraints on freedom of religion and the press.

Leaders made it plain that China-Russia relations are close and friendly, but it was obvious that they see U.S. policy toward China as changing from month to month. I tried to explain that diverse American voices exist on almost any subject. The Chinese are proud that they pay their dues on time to all international organizations, and seem to be preparing for entry into the World Trade Organization.

Considerable changes are obvious since our travels in China in 1981.

  • A relatively free economic system has transformed the lives of Chinese people. We saw this in every village and farm community.
  • Citizens are more free to move from one place to another. We attended church in Zouping County, where the pastor, a devout 75-year-old Christian, had been forced into hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. By 1978, he knew of only 200 believers, with no churches or Bibles. In the same area there are now 15 congregations in 11 churches, 3,000 Christians have been baptized, and Bibles are distributed freely. Foreign missionary activity is not permitted and local congregations have to register, but the pastor said there were no restrictions on his words or actions, and he is free to seek new members and is having good success.
  • Although the Communist Party retains much of its influence, many non-party members have been chosen as village leaders in relatively free village elections, held every three years since 1987. The Carter Center and other Western NGOs have observed these contests.
  • The nation has been opened to outside interests and influence, with almost all areas of China now welcoming foreigners. In fact, until 1985, no outsiders were permitted to enter Zouping, the rural county we visited and in which village leaders are trying to expand their 45 joint ventures with foreigners.
  • Shortly before our 1981 visit, Deng Xiaoping increased from 7 percent to 15 percent the land from which peasants could retain the profit. Farmers now plant crops and retain profits on practically all land, and pay taxes on what they earn.
  • To some degree, the rule of law is replacing the former arbitrary relationship with citizens, but enforcement is often lacking. The populace is becoming more familiar with the laws, and lawyers are being licensed, who represent some clients in lawsuits against government agencies.
  • The commitment to free enterprise is startling. Even villages smaller than Plains have at least one commercial enterprise, and almost every family has its own small business.

Jiang Zemin's state visit: U.S.-Russian summit meetings are routine now, so it is surprising that this late October state visit will be the first in 10 years. Particularly in my meeting with Jiang, we described the reasons for some of the public criticisms he is likely to face and how he might address them. This included trade imbalances, threats to Taiwan, and human rights, particularly concerning Tibet.

Korea: They were obviously interested in Korea, and eager to learn from Sam Nunn and me about our visits to Pyongyang. Since South Korea has assumed leadership of the longstanding armistice process, North Korea has refused to participate in any kind of discussion concerning military matters. This has resulted in a potentially explosive situation, where the extreme shortage of food, continuing U.S. sanctions, and loss of China and Russia as reliable allies have all left the DPRK isolated, vulnerable, and perhaps paranoid. Absent any means of communication between military leaders, there is also the constant likelihood of a minor border incident escalating into a major conflict. The Chinese are planning to participate in the upcoming four-power talks, but agree that Pyongyang may see itself aligned against the other three with little to be gained.

The North Koreans desperately need food (China has contributed 150,000 tons of grain), an assurance that the U.S. will lift economic sanctions against them, and some way to communicate directly with American military commanders to avoid an accidental war.

Japan: It was surprising to Sam Nunn and me that by far the most troubling issue to all Chinese leaders was the recently announced military agreement between the United States and Japan. This agreement has attracted little notice in America, and neither of us was familiar with its details. There is a deep historical distrust of the Japanese as a result of previous invasions, and suspicion that Japanese militarism exists and will someday become manifest. Chinese leaders also see U.S.-Japanese collusion against them on the Taiwan issue, and a geographical expansion of the Japanese sphere of influence. Although unspoken, it is likely that American military and political power in the Asia-Pacific region is also resented.

The Chinese claim a low military budget. (The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency reports that, in constant US dollars, Chinese military expenditures, compared to the rest of Asia, are lower now than at any time since 1970, having dropped from 65 percent of the total military expenditures by all Asian countries to 34 percent. At the same time, Japanese military spending has nearly tripled, and increased from 17 percent to 29 percent in all of Asia.)

Carter Center Involvement: We met with Tibetan Doje Cering, Minister of Civil Affairs, who is responsible for all village elections in China. This is one of the main interests of The Carter Center, and we were able to discuss the possibility of our continuing role in the electoral process, which is very interesting to Americans. Chairman Qiao Shi told us that elections are being considered for areas above the village level. We offered to initiate an unofficial dialogue between The Carter Center and the Institute for Foreign Affairs on matters of mutual interest.

Some general observations: There has been a dramatic change in Beijing since we came here in 1981, 1987, and even 1991. Bicycles have been largely replaced with motor vehicles, smog covers the city and countryside, major corporations advertise on large billboards, and almost all clothing is western style. When we jogged each morning, we missed the hundreds of men with birdcages, large groups doing tai chi exercises, and the leisurely pace of a community waking up.

The villages and rural areas are alive with free enterprise, a desire to export their products, and hopes of joint ventures with foreign firms. They face mounting environmental problems, with air pollution obvious even at the seacoast resort where we met with the president and premier. The three streams that run through Zouping County are too polluted with heavy metals for the water to be used even for irrigation. A new coal-fired electric power plant controlled carbon emissions, but not sulfur. Corn, wheat, cotton, peanut, vegetable, and fruit crops are outstanding, equivalent to those in America, with almost universal irrigation from wells and the nearby Yellow River. (We were served both boiled and fried peanuts at almost every meal in the rural area.)

Family planning is still stringently practiced. In cities, one child is the limit; in rural areas a second one is permitted if the first is a girl and the mother is at least 30 years old. Average household size in the villages we visited is four, including some grandparents. The villagers all maintained that both divorce and unwed pregnancies are unknown, as was the case in Plains 60 years ago. Prenatal care is intense, immunization programs are mandatory almost from birth, and infant mortality is extremely low.

Mandatory education has risen from six to nine years since 1981, and is planned to be 12 years by 2010. As we walked through the villages, almost every homeowner we saw at the front door was glad to have us come into their home. Houses were surprisingly large and elegant. Many villagers had a small business inside, and also worked in the community factory. Everyone was very proud of their economic progress since free enterprise was authorized in December 1978 (exactly the same time Deng and I agreed to normalize relations). People everywhere received us warmly, were eager and proud to answer our questions, seemed pleased with their new freedoms, and were still celebrating the return of Hong Kong to China.

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