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It's Wrong to Demonize China

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed appeared in the Aug. 10, 1997, edition of The New York Times.

I spent the spring of 1949 in the seaports of China, as a young naval officer on my first submarine cruise. Nearly thirty years later, Deng Xiaoping and I normalized diplomatic relations between our countries.We knew that even with this opening, decades of patience and persistence would be required before the bonds between our greatly different countries would be firm and predictable.

I consider sound Sino-American relations, along with the importance of maintaining human rights as a foundation of American foreign policy to be legacies of my administration. These two goals are not incompatible, but can be reached only if we try to understand each other.

Americans have benefited from the unprecedented stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region made possible by close ties among the United States, China, and Japan. But the greatest beneficiaries have been the Chinese people, whose quality of life and human rights have improved enormously during the last two decades.

Both China and the United States continue to share many interests:

  • maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,
  • controlling weapons of mass destruction,
  • preventing conflict on the Korean peninsula, and
  • fostering open trade.

Unfortunately, many Americans and Chinese have lost sight of the original vision that brought us together. Ill-informed commentators in both countries have cast the other side as a villain and have even forecast inevitable confrontation between the two nations. The accomplishments of a quarter century are at risk.

Since my presidency, I have been to China periodically to discuss world and domestic affairs and visit rural areas. On my latest trip last month, I met with President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Li Peng, the Chairman of the National People's Congress Qiao Shi, and other leaders. They expressed concern that our leaders are encouraging Japanese rearmament and extending Japan's defense perimeter to include Taiwan. They also deeply resent American sales of F-16 jet fighters and other weaponry to Taiwan, saying that these deals seem to violate pledges made to them by Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and me.

We also discussed America's concerns, including the mounting trade deficit, human rights and particularly the treatment of the Tibetan people.

Mutual criticisms are proper and necessary, but should not be offered in an arrogant or self-righteous way, and each of us should acknowledge improvements made by the other.

Significant changes are taking place throughout China, there is no longer a single unquestioned government policy. Instead, China's top leaders have a wide range of opinions on such issues as the role of parliaments, expansion of the electionprocess, and privatization. Since normalization, an increasingly free economic system hastransformed the lives of Chinese people. Farmers now retain profits on practically all crops planted on their land, and many villagers own their own business. Incomes and educational opportunities have also risen sharply.

Although congregations must still register with the government, membership in Christian churches is booming. The pastor of the church we attended in Shandong Province knew of only 200 believers in his rural county, after the cultural revolution, and they had no churches or Bibles. There are now 15 congregations in 11 churches, 3000 members have beenbaptized, and Bibles are distributed freely.

A 1987 law mandates elections in nearly a million villages. Citizens canchoose among multiple candidates, including those who are not members of the Communist party, in a secret ballot, and many non-party members have been chosen as villageleaders. The Carter Center has observed some of these contests. Arbitrary power is still exerted by some political leaders, but progressis being made in promoting the rule of law. Some citizens are even bringing lawsuits against government agencies that violate their rights.

Citizens are more free to move from one place to another, and the nation has been opened to outside interests and influence. Since1985, no outsiders were permitted to enter the rural county we visited;now village leaders are trying to expand their 45 joint ventures with foreigners.

President Jiang's long overdue state visit to Washingtonin October - the first by a Chinese leader in ten years - will provide an opportunity to address human rights and other issues.

American criticism of China's human rights abuses are justified, buttheir basis is not well understood. Westerners emphasize personal freedoms, while a stable government and a unified nation are paramount to the Chinese. This means that policies are shaped by fear of chaos from unrestrained dissidents or fear of China's fragmentation by an independent Taiwan orTibet. The result is excessive punishment of outspoken dissidents and unwarranted domination of Tibetans.

But frank discussions on these and other issues, can sometimes yield real progress. Inprivate discussions in 1979, Deng Xiaoping agreed to address the issueof religious freedom, and great improvements were made. In 1987,after a visit I made to Tibet and after subsequent conversations with the exiled Dalai Lama,discussions were arranged between his emissaries and theChinese government officials. Unfortunately, the Tiananmen Square tragedy aborted the initiative.

In spite of our differences China and the United States mustcontinue to pursue ways to co-exist peacefully and productively. In addition to summit meetings, ordinary Americans and Chinese can help. For example, more than 100,000 Chinese students have attended American universities since 1979, providing an invaluable cultural and intellectual exchange for both countries. Only through continued dialogue at many levels can we resolve differences and build a foundation for better understanding.

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