Guest Lecture by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Guest Lecture by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia

I always have believed that the most important bilateral relationship in the world is between the United States and China. It is very important for our two countries and the world to maintain that relationship with mutual respect. We have different histories, different cultures, different ideas, and different political systems, but those differences should be accommodated by the presidents of the U.S. and by the leaders of China. Maintaining mutual respect and proper understanding between us. Sharing important responsibilities is still absolutely crucial for our two countries and for the world.

I first went to China in 1949, before any of you were born. I went there as an officer on an American submarine. At that time Marines and others were still in Tsingtao, and the Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai Shek were occupying Tsingtao and a few other ports on the Chinese coast. My submarine spent two weeks in Tsingtao in April 1949, and then after I left China, Chiang Kai Shek was forced out of China and had to go to Taiwan. We had a very close alliance with him and the Nationalist Chinese, and we despised the Communists because we didn’t understand them very well. Communists all over the world at that time were looked upon as enemies of the U.S. — the Soviet Union, Cuba, mainland China, and so forth. So, we were very much against the Chinese government and people.

When I was there we witnessed the conscription of soldiers. Sometimes boys only 12 years old were being impressed into their army by the Nationalist Chinese. The Communist Chinese under Mao were in the hills around all the ports, and we could see the fires at night in the Communist camps. One time the captain of our submarine went too far out of Tsingtao and came back with a bullet hole in his jeep. He was very proud of that bullet hole for the rest of his life, I presume, but he escaped injury. We stayed there operating with the Australians and Nationalist Chinese and others. We were the sub target; we operated primarily with destroyers who practiced against our submarine. We had a very wonderful captain, the best I ever had, whose name was J.W. Williams Jr., and he so outclassed the destroyer that was trying to attack us at that time.

We came back to the U.S., and I followed very carefully what happened to China after that time. Chiang Kai Shek left and the Communist Chinese celebrated the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, which was my 25th birthday. So, I’m exactly 25 years older than the People’s Republic of China. Anyway, that is what happened in 1949.

The next year we went to war with China in Korea. We supported the southerners, and obviously the Chinese and Russians and others supported the northern Korean Communists. I was still in the submarine in the Pacific Ocean as an officer on the USS Pomfret. That was the last sea duty I had in the Pacific Ocean, in 1950 during the Korean War. That brought us down to 1953, and there was an end to the war on the peninsula. The U.S. and North and South Koreans signed a treaty — not a treaty, but a cease-fire; they’ve never signed a treaty, but a cease-fire. So what North Korea had wanted since then was to talk to the U.S. and have a permanent treaty of peace with North Korea and the U.S., but that has never been made possible.

Later, in 1994, after I left the White House, I went to North Korea the first time and I met with Kim Il Sung and then went back later when Kim Jong Il was the leader of North Korea. I haven’t been there since Kim Jong Un has been the leader, so I don’t know him. But I’ve gotten along quite well with the North Koreans on my three visits to that country. Before I went to North Korea I went to Seoul, and the last two times I also went to Beijing to get briefings with the Chinese government to get what their interests were in North Korea, and to meet with some of the leaders of the World Food Program in the U.N. about the dire starvation prospects of many of the people in North Korea. The last Americans who went there as official delegates from the U.S. Congress reported that between 300,000 and 800,000 people in North Korea would starve to death each year if we didn’t provide them with food assistance, and we provided a lot of food assistance to them when Bill Clinton was president. That’s when I went over to represent the U.S. in North Korea.

The peace agreement I worked out with Kim Il Sung provided for the North Koreans to do away with all their nuclear program and to have direct peace talks with South Korea, and other things as well. The North Koreans even agreed to withdraw all their artillery in the DMZ back 25 kilometers, which meant that they could not attack Seoul in a devastating way. That was an agreement I worked out with Kim Il Sung, who was the undisputed leader of North Korea at that time.

North Korea practically worshipped Kim Il Sung. He was looked upon, as I’ve often said, as a combination of George Washington and Jesus Christ. He was almost worshipped by the North Koreans, and his son and now his grandson have taken over the leadership. The agreement I worked out has been violated, I would say primarily by the U.S. and also North Korea since then.

So now we are in a very serious problem with them. One of the bones of contention or arguments between the U.S. and the Chinese government is about how much influence China could exert on North Korea to deter them from their nuclear program. I think U.S. officials tend to exaggerate the influence that China has over North Korea. China does not dominate North Korea, so we overestimate what the Chinese can do. But since I went over to China and came back, I was convinced of the importance of China both as President and later in my life. it,

When I became president, I was determined to find a leader in China with whom I could negotiate and have full diplomatic relations established with China. In 1972 Richard Nixon, former president of the United States, went over to China and met with the leaders there, and he cooperated in the so-called Shanghai Communique, which said there was only one China. But he didn’t make clear to himself or his successors which China it was, so I’ve always said (a little bit exaggerating) that he said and he maintained that Taiwan was the one China, although I think Nixon agreed with the Chinese government that the Republic of China was the one China on the mainland and that Taiwan was a part of China. Under Nixon and Ford later, there was an understanding that we still recognized fully, diplomatically, and militarily, Taiwan as the China we recognize.

I had a debate with President Ford in 1976 when I was running for president, and in the debate, we brought up this subject. I maintained that Ford, against whom I was running, had betrayed the commitment of Nixon to fully recognize the mainland of China and we were still adhering to our commitment to Taiwan. So, after I defeated him in the 1976 election I was determined to have negotiations with China to normalized diplomatic relations after 35 years of alienation between our two countries.

I chose as my chief negotiator Leonard Woodcock, who had been the leader of one of our top labor unions in America and who had been very famous as one of our top negotiators in America. And I wanted a good negotiator, so I sent Leonard Woodcock over to China. He never had been with the diplomatic corps. He was there and represented me in Beijing while I negotiated with the Chinese leader. There were two contending Chinese leaders at that time, Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng. There was some doubt about who was going to be the leader. Deng Xiaoping was condemned and expelled from the Politburo but he was then reappointed to the Politburo, I think in 1972, and he was elevated to a competitive position with Hua Guofeng. During 1977, late in the year, Deng prevailed, and he became the undisputed leader of China. He never wanted to be called premier, he just wanted to be called vice premier, but everybody knew that he was the top leader in China, and nobody disputed that status.

So, we began to negotiate, and sincerely, I would say, at the beginning of 1978. There was a big argument between me and him, through Woodcock, over whether or not the status of Taiwan would be clarified. China always wanted us to declare that Taiwan was a province of China, and they wanted us to break our treaty agreement with Taiwan and stop all our military assistance. I was insisting that we should break our treaty with Taiwan only in agreement with our treaty, which required a one-year notice. I also insisted that we continue to provide defensive assistance to Taiwan and that the differences between China and Taiwan be resolved peacefully.

Deng Xiaoping never would agree to all those things publicly, but he would agree to them privately with me on the 13th of December 1978. I had already sent him an invitation to visit us, and he and I declared in Beijing and Washington that we had been successful in our negotiations. Nobody in the U.S. knew about it except those of us in the White House. The State Department in the U.S. did not know about our secret negotiations because the State Department was a kind of a sieve of revelations of secrets. I didn’t want anybody in America to know that we were negotiating in sincerely final terms about full recognition. So, we announced it on Dec. 15, and it was also announced that day that Deng would visit the U.S. when the treaty became official; that would be the first day of January 1979.

So, Deng agreed to come over here and visit us later, in January 1979. He still found that most people in the U.S. were in favor of Taiwan to be the partner of the U.S., but at that time Communists all over the world were still despised by most Americans. When Deng came, he was very small in stature — he was about as tall as my young daughter, who was about 12 or 13 at that time, and he was full of humor and flexible in his statements, and he was very knowledgeable about the culture of the United States. He participated in some of the key things in the United States, and he soon had a beneficial impact on the American public. Very quickly, surprising to me, the American people began to look with favor on the treaty I had worked out with the People’s Republic of China.

When Deng got to Washington and we began to negotiate, we had 35 years of estrangement, differences of opinion, and claims against each other. We had to find a lot of agreements to be negotiated by our staffs, primarily that would resolve those differences that the US had with China. Deng and I signed dozens of them to set up technical agreements and that sort of thing and to terminate any prospect of lawsuit against each other because of what had happened in previous years of estrangement.

I found Deng Xiaoping to be very honest and forthright and very blunt in his statements to me. Whenever he and I had a difference, he made it clear about what the difference was, and we quickly worked to resolve those differences. One of the most important things to me personally happened one night at a banquet that my wife and I had for the Chinese delegation. He reached over to me and very quietly said to me, “Mr. President, you have done a lot to help me help China, and we’ve never done anything for you. What can I do that you would like to see done in China?”

I thought about it for a few minutes and I remembered that 35 years ago our heroes in China were Christian missionaries, and in particular a woman named Lottie Moon. I was a Baptist and she was a Baptist, and whenever a Chinese missionary came home they were heroes in our churches. When I was growing up, when I was 10 or 12 years old, my number one hero in the world was Lottie Moon. She gave away all her money that she got paid — not very much — and she gave away all her food. She finally starved to death, as a matter of fact, because she loved the Chinese people so much she sacrificed her health for the benefit of the Chinese people.

So, I told Deng three things I want. First, I want you to permit unrestricted worship in China. Second, I want you to permit the distribution of Bibles. Third, I want you to allow Christian missionaries to come back to China. He was taken aback. He was very surprised at my request. He said he would have to think about it and he would let me know later. The next morning, he told me, “I’ve decide not to let you have missionaries back in China because they acted superior to the Chinese and tried to change our culture. But I will authorize through the National Congress unrestricted freedom of worship, I will permit the distribution of Bibles, but I will not let missionaries come back.”

So, my wife and I went over there the next year, in 1981, as a matter of fact, and when we got there we found that freedom of religion had been permitted in China — and has been ever since, by the way — and Bibles were being distributed. When we got there, we found that some big churches, like in Shanghai, were having to have four services every Sunday because so many Christians wanted to come and worship and the churches were overrun. We were very pleased with that. More analysts have shown there are probably 70,000 Christians in China now, and they figure that by the year 2025 they will have more Christians in China than we will have in the United States. They will be the number one Christian country in the world as far as numbers are concerned. The biggest Bible producer in the world is in China now. So, I’ve been very proud of that as a Christian.

We had one setback when Deng was in Washington with us, and that was when he told me one morning, “We have decided to invade Vietnam, and we are going to do it very soon.”

I said, “No! No! You can’t do that. First thing you’re going to do after we have normal relations is to invade another country? That’s a bad signal to send. I thought we were going to bring peace to the Far East.”

He said, “We’ve got to do it because Vietnam has insulted China and we’ve got to keep face.”

I finally reluctantly agreed, but he promised me he would withdraw from Vietnam very quickly. And they did. They invaded Vietnam and they suffered a very severe defeat. But they withdrew quickly, and as far as I know it’s the only country China has invaded in the last 40 years. The difference is that the United States has been involved in warfare in 20 or 30 countries around the world since that time. So, we have been almost constantly at war and China has been constantly at peace since 1980. That’s been a lot of difference because we have spent probably 4 trillion to 6 trillion dollars in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is about as much as our total budget for a year. In the meantime, China has spent all that money invested in their great and growing infrastructure. So, at this moment China has about 12,000 miles of high-speed railroad, which goes more than 250 miles per hour. My wife and I have ridden on one of them. The United States has zero miles of fast trains. China has been building new universities and kept their sea ports, roads, and railroads up to date, while we have not.

We also have developed about $21 trillion in deficit spending in the United States. That’s primarily because we stay at war all the time. We spend a lot of our resources on warfare. That’s beside the point, but the thing is that China is now destined to be one of the countries that will replace the United States in the future as the number one country in the world. Maybe not militarily, but I think it’s going to be the number one economic power in the world soon.

And China has developed a great deal of human rights for the Chinese people, which did not exist when I went over there in 1981.When I went over there, no Chinese citizen could move from one place to another without permission of the government. China would only permit a family to have one child if it was a boy and maybe two children if one of them was a girl. If it was a girl they were permitted to have another child. All of that has been changed, not dramatically, but changed. When I went over there in 1981 there was zero opportunity for free enterprise; that is, people could not earn and keep any money. Everything was controlled completely by the Chinese Communist system. In 1981 Deng Xiaoping permitted even people living on farmland and not even living in small villages to have one free enterprise in their family. So, they could have five pigs or five chickens or five minks or something like that. Or they could make horseshoes or repair bicycles, but that was all. They could have just one industry. Now China has become a very open economic system because of Deng Xiaoping.

We were very eager to cement the relationship between China and the United States in every way possible while I was still president.

After I left the White House, The Carter Center offered to provide some humanitarian assistance to China. Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, was a triple amputee. He had fallen out of a two- or three-story window during the Cultural Revolution and was crippled badly. Deng Xiaoping finally permitted The Carter Center to establish a factory in Beijing, I think it was six stories high. It was the most advanced prosthesis manufacturing plant at that time in the world. We got most of the manufacturing technology from Germany. That was the first time China had let another country do anything for them. Later, he agreed to let me be responsible for training several hundred teachers in China to educate little children in the elementary schools that were blind or deaf. We trained teachers all over China to train blind and deaf children how to educate themselves with the teacher’s help. Those were the two things they let us do.

When Deng Xiaoping was 93 years old, the same age that I am now, I visited him the last time. He was very feeble then but he was still a very close friend of mine. Since then the Chinese government, when I’ve gone over there, has treated me like a hero. I’ve been quite often in China, I don’t remember how often, and every time they’ve treated me like a hero because we normalized diplomatic relations with China.

Deng Xiaoping wanted to open China with more human rights and freedom for the people, and he also wanted to have an expanded influence by China in the international community. They had very few relationships outside China with another country on an equal basis, but now of course China has diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world. There are a few they have bargained away to Taiwan. They are very active in diplomatic circles. So, I think even at this moment--I don’t want to go on the record—but I would say that China has as good a relationship with many countries in the world as does the United States because we’ve been at war so many times.

China has been greatly expanding its influence internationally and opening up to freedom for its own people. Folks have moved from their little villages and farms into cities and tried to become economically advanced.

One of the things that were very important to me was to see if human rights increased in China, and when I’ve been over there, I have had freedom to speak as I wished. So, I’ve spoken to universities and many students in China. When I was over there in 1981, Deng Xiaoping had already ordained that one of the TV stations which was prevalent, I think in Beijing, was constantly involved in teaching English to Chinese students. And very shortly the Chinese language instruction in all the schools in China was very much oriented toward English. When I go to Japan, for instance — and I’m not criticizing Japan — I have a hard time understanding the Japanese students who speak English. But when I go to Chinese universities, quite often they’ll have 5,000 or 6,000 students to meet with me, and I give all my lectures in English, and then the questions from the students are in English. I respond in English. I don’t speak Chinese, but I can’t do that in any other country. As a matter of fact, it’s hard for me to do that in, say, an African country that speaks English. It’s very important to the Chinese people that they speak English and speak it fluently so a person who speaks English natively can understand them.

I’ve been very proud of my friendship with the Chinese government. One of the things we did which was most important was Deng Xiaoping’s successor called us in to monitor village elections. That was after Deng died. We were asked by Jiang Zemin to monitor the democratic elections in the little villages. The little villages are not part of the Communist Party system in China. That includes only big cities and regional systems. Jiang Zemin wanted to have absolutely free democratic elections in the little villages. The Carter Center did that for about 10 or 12 years. We had complete freedom to do that, and that benefited the Chinese. I would say that more than half of the people who came from the little villages had absolutely free democratic elections in their home villages. And that means everybody who is 18 years old and registered to vote. They all come to the village squares and they sit on little stools and they vote secretly. They count the ballots when all of them are there. The winners are all elected—what we would call a mayor or city council—to operate the village for three years. They can run for re-election. They have absolutely free elections. After we’d been there for a few years, the Chinese wanted to improve their system, so with our guidance they modified the law to make the elections even more free.

We, The Carter Center, established a website, and the Chinese government was very displeased because our website was giving information that the they looked upon as a kind of challenge to the Chinese party system. We would let professors analyze the village elections, and they would sometimes make comments that weren’t pleasing to the government. So eventually they did away with our involvement in the village elections. But during that time, they substituted for us a series of conferences, which we still have, to bring together leading scholars in the U.S. to analyze relationships between China and the United States no matter who the president of the U.S. or China might be.

The Chinese have always treated me with great respect and honor when I go there. One of their customs was to let me meet the future leaders of China, including the incumbent president and vice premier, and that sort of thing. I met with Xi Jinping three times before he ever became the leader. I’ve met with him also since he’s become the leader. Xi Jinping and I have been pretty close together. In fact, we participated in a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the visit of the U.S. Ping-Pong team to China. It took place, I think, back in 1971. In 2011, 40 years later, Xi Jinping and I sat together and watched the Ping-Pong teams get back together like 40 years before. By the way, both the current Ping-Pong players and the Chinese Ping-Pong players of 40 years ago beat the hell out of the U.S. players.

So, we’ve been very close to them, but at this time the Chinese government has tightened up quite a lot on control of their own people and on The Carter Center, so we’re not nearly as free there as we were when I was in the White House or right after I left the White House when Deng Xiaoping and his immediate successors were in power.
We now have a very strained relationship between our two countries. My hope is that The Carter Center can continue to be helpful and that the U.S. leaders and the Chinese leaders will be accommodating to one another to maintain the good relationships that we had when I established diplomatic relations with Deng Xiaoping.

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