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What Can the U.S. and China Do Together?

By Jimmy Carter

This speech by Jimmy Carter was given at the U.S.-China Relations Forum in Atlanta, Ga.

On Dec. 15, 1978, Deng Xiaoping and I announced simultaneously in Beijing and Washington that we were going to normalize diplomatic relations the first day of 1979, and just three days later, on Dec. 18, Deng Xiaoping announced reform and opening up for the people in his own country at the 3rd Plenum of the 11th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Early on I went to China as a guest of Deng Xiaoping, and he explained to me in our private sessions what his goal for China was. We looked upon his reform and opening as providing new liberty for the Chinese people within their own country, to travel freely from one part of the country to another, to guarantee freedom of worship, opportunity for changing jobs, things that were unprecedented before that.

The other major development is opening China up to the outside, and China has now become omnipresent or ubiquitous throughout the world. The Carter Center has programs in more than 70 countries. My wife and I have visited more than 140 nations in the world, and we see the Chinese presence everywhere, throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, all over the world. I think this is what Deng Xiaoping meant by 'opening up,' to expand the ancient culture of China and share its achievements with others.

China may share its remarkable experiences with other countries who are searching for the truth. It once was a very poor developing country with no free economic system at all and now is one of the most open, free, and dynamic economic systems on earth. This is not easy for a nation like the United States to share with a very poverty-stricken country like Burkina Faso, or Mali, or Niger in Africa; but it's much easier for the Chinese people to go and say "This is what's happened to us, just in recent years, and let us share this with you."

We have — as is well known and as Deng Xiaoping and I discussed early in 1978 before we made the announcement — differences of ancient history in China and recent history in America. We have different cultures; we have different environmental problems, challenges, and opportunities; we have different geographies; we have different alliances next door to us that are very precious to us; and we have a different political system. These things are inherent, and they are not going to change. We are not going to change a political system. Deng Xiaoping pointed out to me that China would make rapid strides and almost incredible economic changes, but, particularly with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he was very cautious about any rapid changes in the political system. Sometimes that bothers people in the State Department and in the White House and Americans on the street. Being a keen observer of China and invited by the Chinese government to observe village elections since the 1990s, my staff and I believe in what Deng Xiaoping once said that all reforms will eventually lead to political reform. We also are convinced it is the decision of the Chinese people and their leaders when and how to expand and deepen political reform.

One of the things I shared with Deng Xiaoping was the need to break down the cultural barriers that existed, especially during the 35 years after the Chinese Revolution was successful and after China became a nation. By the way, the People's Republic of China became a nation on my 25th birthday, Oct. 1, 1949. Deng Xiaoping used to bring that up, and so did I, as a matter of faith, and I never have questioned his judgment on that. I had been in China as a young naval officer, and I had fallen in love with the country and with its people, and that was one of the reasons I was not constrained, as my predecessors in the White House had been, in breaking away from our unilateral relationship with Taiwan, and moving towards the People's Republic of China, with Taiwan being part of the People's Republic of China. There was also, I would say, a difference in ideology, between me and perhaps some of my predecessors. I'm not criticizing them, because they did wonderful things. But those times were transformative in my own life and the life of China, in the life of the Western Pacific, and in the life of the entire world.

One breakthrough on cultural exchanges that we made occurred, you might say, in the middle of the night. A president, when he's sleeping in the White House, is rarely disturbed unless there's some crisis that arises, something that he needs to address that won't wait until morning. One night, Rosalynn and I were sleeping in the bedroom and the phone rang about 3 o'clock in the morning, and I thought "Oh my, there's a tragedy somewhere in the United States." I woke up and answered the phone. It was my national science advisor, who was Dr. Frank Press, a geologist. I said, "Frank, what's happened, another Mount Etna, or something like that exploded?" He said, "No, I'm in China with Deng Xiaoping." And I said, "What has happened with Deng Xiaoping? What's wrong?"And he said, "'Deng Xiaoping insisted I call you now to see if you would permit 5,000 Chinese students to come to American universities." And I was very angry. I said, "Tell him to send a hundred thousand," and I slammed the phone down. Within five years, we had a hundred thousand Chinese students with us.

By the way, this weekend, as reported in the news this morning, 235,000 Chinese students are studying in American colleges and universities. That makes my heart beat a little bit faster, and it makes my face flush. It makes me very proud, because this is what it takes to break down the cultural differences and make sure that we have a new generation of Chinese and American leaders coming along who will be able to accommodate differences and still cherish the things that bind us together for the common good of all mankind and womankind.

I first met Xi Jinping in 2007, and I met him for the fourth time when I was in China in December 2012. I have met every Chinese leader since I left the White House, and both premiers and presidents have been very gracious in letting me also meet the future leaders. President Hu Jintao and others made arrangements for me to meet with Xi Jinping several times, and we had long and serious discussions in private. In 2011, I was invited to visit China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy. Veteran Chinese and American ping-pong players were playing ping pong in front of the two of us. Then there was a contest, which I hate to admit, between the Chinese champion and the American champion. I won't tell you what the results were, but it was somewhat embarrassing to Americans. Those were the kind of wonderful experiences that I had with President Xi Jinping.

During my last visit to China, President Xi told me that as the American president who made the decision to normalize U.S.-China relations I should spend more time and energy in putting the bilateral relationship on a stronger footing. Now The Carter Center is working with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries on launching a U.S.-China relations project to break down barriers and to make sure that China and the United States understand each other better.

Madam Li Xiaolin said we need to do something of a 'big picture' nature, and with that in mind, I'll close my remarks on this note. I was in South Africa the last weekend in October, with world leaders from all over the globe. They were bemoaning the fact that the greatest challenge the next generation on earth faces is probably global warming. And the tragedy is that nations have not been able to work harmoniously or in concert.

I think it would be a notable and noble bilateral commitment for our two presidents, our two foreign ministers, our scientific advisors, to get together in private talks and work out a proposal to deal with global warming and declare "We two nations agree, and now, other nations, please come on board with us." All the European leaders in South Africa said that the Europeans would come along instantly if China and the United States could ever agree on what to do about environmental issues in our countries and the threat of global warming in the future. Those are the kind of things that I hope to see our nations adopt as common commitments: helping developing countries improve their lives, understanding one another, developing a new generation of leadership, and taking on two or three big-picture issues. I think the future relationship between our two countries can be the most glorious historical event that we have ever seen, and with the proper leadership on both sides, and with the cooperation of our private citizens of all ages, I hope and pray, and I believe it will come true.

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