More Links in News & Events

Jimmy Carter: Rule of Law and Social Harmony in China

This speech by Jimmy Carter was given to the China University of Political Science and Law.

Thank you for your introduction, Professor Zhu Yong.

It is a great pleasure to be speaking at the largest law school in the world. When President Xu Xianming visited me in April this year, he told me there were 17,000 law students at your university, and I understand that since its founding in 1952, it has graduated over 100,000 students. These graduates are now the backbone of China's judicial and administrative systems.

The law and political history have been intertwined in my life and yours. I began learning about China when I was 7 years old. My Uncle Tom Gordy was in the US Navy and stationed in China. In one of the letters he sent to me in 1931, Japan had invaded China's Northeastern provinces, and he described Dr. Sun Yet-sen as China 's founding father, like our George Washington. Sun Yet-sen envisioned a unified, peaceful and democratic China to be governed by the rule of law. His dream was destroyed tragically by brutal civil wars, violent invasion of foreign powers, and a general lack of respect for the rule of law. Power came from the barrels of guns, and decisions were made and enforced by those who had the largest armed forces.

In 1949, I was a naval officer based in Hawaii and operating out of the port of Qingdao, Shandong Province. While there, I thought of a fateful decision that was made under American President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. It was the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred Shandong from the Germans to the Japanese. This led to one of China's most famous events, the May 4th Movement. When I saw the smoke in the hills near Qingdao and heard the distant gunfire, I realized that the intellectual and political forces unleashed on May 4th were transforming China and that a new nation was emerging. Indeed, the People's Republic of China was born on October 1, 1949, which happened to be my 25th birthday. During those 30 years, there was no effective rule of law. For Dr. Sun Yet-sen's successors the laws were simply on paper. Mao Zedong and his followers such as Deng Xiaoping were fighting to survive and had no time, energy or even territories to pass and implement laws except in liberated regions like Northern Shaanxi.

There was also a turning point in America. In 1954, the US Supreme Court made a historical decision known as Brown vs. Board of Education, striking down a decision made by the same court 58 years earlier. Racial segregation and discrimination that had been protected by the US Constitution were now unconstitutional. I still live in Southern Georgia, where many white people were afraid of this new decision. They could not envision a new social order in which colored people could eat in the same restaurants, watch movies in the same theaters, worship in the same church, or receive education in the same classrooms.

However, this societal fear and political differences did not throw my country into another civil war. Rather, the old disgusting system of racism was eventually torn down by the implementation of legal decisions and by the patience, courage, and seemingly illegal disobedience of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. a fellow Georgian and Nobel Peace Laureate.

In 1962 I decided to seek a seat in the Senate of the State of Georgia, but the election was rigged by local politicians and I was cheated out of a victory. I mounted a legal challenge in the courts, and an honest judge threw out the illegal ballots and I was declared the winner. A political injustice was overturned by a judge whose decision was not corrupted by government leaders and Party bosses in Georgia. Without the benefit of judicial integrity and independence, this would probably have been the end of my venture into political life.

At this time, People's Republic of China was just 12 years old. It had just emerged from the disastrous Great Leap Forward. A few years later, China slid into a revolution that made domestic politics unpredictable and secretive, economic development frozen, people's lives miserable, and the outside world fearful. This university was closed. Professors like Qian Duansheng were forced to be reeducated in labor camps and students were furloughed and told to engage in ideological purification through farming or working in factories.

In 1972, when President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, there began a gradual thaw in the relationship between two of the greatest nations in the world. Unfortunately, some American laws were broken in order for him to get reelected, and his attempts to cover up the improper acts broke more laws. These illegalities and the imperial abuse of power eventually forced his resignation, leaving millions of American people angry, disillusioned and cynical.

It was during this political turmoil and the increasing call to respect the rule of law, to tell the truth, and to improve access to governmental information that I decided to run for president. I was 52 years old, a former submarine officer, farmer, state legislator, and governor, barely known outside my home state. I began and ended my campaign by dwelling on two questions: Can our government be honest, open, fair and compassionate? Can our government be competent? American people were demanding changes, and I represented change.

A few months after the death of Mao Zedong and the downfall of the Gang of Four, I became the 39th President of the United States of America. At about the same time, veteran Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping began to see that neglect of the rule of law, administrative secrecy, failure to improve living conditions of the people, and arbitrary state intrusion into the private lives of citizens would lead to the loss of the mandate that he and his comrades had fought so hard to achieve. Losing that mantle of legitimacy meant pushing China into yet another disastrous dynastic cycle.

At the same time, I realized that the Shanghai Declaration had declared that there was only one China but it did not say which one. Our nation's diplomatic relations were exclusively with Taiwan , recognized as the sovereign nation of China , and I began secret negotiations with Deng Xiaoping to correct this error. On December 15, 1978 – almost exactly 29 years ago - he and I announced simultaneously that the United States and People's Republic of China would normalize our relationship on January 1, 1979.

Just three days later, Deng Xiaoping convened the 3rd Plenum of the 11th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and a historic decision was made to discontinue the continuous revolution, to focus on economic development, to restore rule of law, and to stop the government from intruding into citizens' lives because of their speech, beliefs or even family ties. I was told that the decision to reopen this university, then closed for eight years, was made at this same meeting.

I made the right decision to bring Beijing and Washington together, but this decision was violently rejected by Americans who supported Taiwan as the sovereign nation. They declared that withdrawing recognition of Taipei would lead to the weakening of American credibility, and tried to void my decision. This may have been one of the reasons that I was not reelected two years later, but I have never regretted this decision. The visit of Deng Xiaoping to my country in January 1979 helped to open the floodgates of friendship and cooperation. There were soon 100,000 Chinese students in American universities, the National People's Congress guaranteed freedom of religion, and Deng Xiaoping told me that free economic enterprise would be initiated, beginning with farm families. He invited me and my family to China to witness these changes and soon honest and free local elections were ordained for 650,000 small villages, below the township level.

I was not able to visit China during my last year in office because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of our American diplomats in Tehran. However, we accepted the invitation in 1981, and since then have visited China as often as possible. I have been honored to consult with Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. I have seen China make tremendous progress in economic growth, rule of law, transparency, and democracy.

It was heartwarming to hear Deng Xiaoping say he was the son of the Chinese people and he wanted economic prosperity and equal opportunity for Chinese people to be protected by the rule of law. It was exciting to hear President Jiang Zemin explain to me that "three represents" meant the Party would represent a much broader range of Chinese people, including those involved in business and commerce. It was inspiring when President Hu Jintao told me that in order to sustain China's economic growth, the government had to intervene to protect the people's welfare, to reduce the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and to secure the people's right to be informed and to participate in decision-making processes at all levels. These are the goals The Carter Center has been seeking in "waging peace, fighting disease and building hope” during the past 25 years.

I met with Mr. Xi Jinping yesterday, and found that we have a lot in common. Xi was once a farmer in Western China and became governor of an eastern province. I was (and still am) a farmer and I was elected governor of an eastern state in America. I was 52 years old when elected president; he was 54 when elected into the Standing Committee of the Politburo. I was able to make fundamental changes when I was governor of Georgia in the areas of budgeting, reduction of waste, civil rights, access to information, and holding state officials accountable. When Xi Jinping served as governor of Zhejiang, he implemented what President Hu Jintao has launched in 2005: a society of peace and harmony. Xi did not sacrifice social harmony for economic growth. He began experimenting and installing new measures to make local government more democratic and accountable and expanded the ability of citizens to assess the performance of their government.

Because of these great successes, your nation is becoming one of the world's great powers, both economically and politically. China now faces a future of expanding opportunity and growing responsibility. The prospect of global warming will present you with the challenge of contributing to the solution, as your industrial growth destines your nation to become the greatest contributor of carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere. Your expanded role in Africa and your need for oil give you great influence in trouble spots like Sudan and Darfur. China has a unique relationship with Myanmar, and the world sees this influence as potentially helpful in dealing with dissension and the violation of human rights.

I realize that to exert even beneficial influence tends to violate China's long-standing aversion to interfering in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation. These are decisions for your leaders to make.

On a microscopic level, we have faced the same challenges at The Carter Center, except that we have no power and no authority of any kind. Despite this, we have offered our services - only when requested - to assist many sovereign nations in promoting peace, freedom, democracy, environmental quality, and the alleviation of suffering. As requested, we have helped to negotiate peace agreements, alleviated human rights abuses, helped to monitor 69 national elections, taught eight million African families to produce more food grains and preserve the quality of their land, and treated many millions of poverty-stricken people to reduce or eradicate the ravages of preventable diseases.

Powerful influence can be exerted through peaceful means, compatible with the standards of international law and the ancient customs of your nation.

At the dawn of our year 2000 I was asked to deliver a speech in Oslo, Norway, and assigned the subject, “The World's Greatest Challenge in the New Millennium.” My answer was, “The growing chasm between the rich and the poor,” is the greatest challenge - not just between nations but within them.

Your extraordinary economic growth has been one of the world's great success stories, and this accumulation of riches has created a vast divide between rich and poor that afflicts both your country and my own. Your president has recognized this as one of China's greatest challenges.

All leaders must face these similar challenges together, and they will require wisdom and persistence, over the years ahead. You students must remember that you are the future Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

Like you, I had a good education. Unlike you, I became an engineer and helped to develop nuclear energy for the propulsion of ships. I was interviewed for this choice assignment by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of peaceful atomic power, who was a fearsome commander. In my severe cross-examination, he asked how I stood among other graduates in my class, and I responded proudly that I was 52 among 820. Instead of congratulations, he looked at me sternly, and asked, “Did you always do your best?” I hesitated, and finally confessed, “No sir, not always.” He asked, “Why not?” and turned his chair around to end the interview. I got the job, but have never forgotten the question.

Like great men who have come before you, I hope you will become leaders of courage and vision in the future, but you need to start now, on this campus. Best wishes in your studies and future career. I hope that you will always ask yourselves the question: “Why not the best?” Thank you.

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