Forty Years of Diplomatic Relations and Deng Xiaoping’s Visit to Texas

   Charles C. Foster

It was the early morning of Dec 16, 1978, in China and late evening in Washington on the evening of Dec 15 when US President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Premier Hua Guofeng issued their historic joint communique on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, which came into effect on Jan 1, 1979.

Only a few years earlier it would have been inconceivable that diplomatic relations would be established. This news caught not only the authorities in Taiwan by surprise, but also members of the US Congress. But in the end, no serious opposition within Congress ever materialized, and the global reaction was positive.

Equally surprising, a short time after the establishment of diplomatic relations, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his wife, Zhuo Lin — accompanied by Leonard Woodcock, the US ambassador and former chief of the US Diplomatic Liaison Office in Beijing — landed in Washington on Jan 28, 1979, where Deng was hosted in Blair House across from the White House where only the most distinguished foreign guests are accommodated. Having emerged triumphantly from a third purge, Deng had become the paramount leader of China. He was the first leader of the People’s Republic of China ever to be an official guest of the US government.

Expectations for Deng’s trip were sky high. He had been named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1978. His trip attracted the most public interest in any foreign leader’s visit since Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 trip to the US with the media awash with stories about Deng’s remarkable comeback, his extraordinary political restoration, his decision to open to the West, his commitment to normalizing relations and his push for reform.

Prior to his trip, Woodstock asked Deng what he wanted to do during his visit, and he quickly responded that he wanted to see space exploration facilities. Thus, it was clear that Houston would be on the itinerary. Deng brought with him his principal interpreter, Ji Chaozhu, then foreign minister Huang Hua, and Li Shenzhi, head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies.

Deng had outmaneuvered the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, by arriving on an earlier date than had been previously announced. In early meetings on Jan 29, 1979, with Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deng explained that he had begun to realize that it was not the US that presented the greatest threat to China, but the Soviet Union and that China needed a long period of peace to realize its modernization plans.

During negotiations, Deng pushed his plans to send many Chinese students to the US, with Carter asking that such students not be chosen for ideological reasons. Deng agreed that China would not use ideology as a primary basis for acceptance. Being a religious man, Carter also asked Deng to allow the distribution of bibles and the freedom of worship, and later Carter expressed satisfaction that China had made progress in both of these areas.

Deng also asked that he be allowed to meet with former president Richard Nixon, to which Carter agreed, inviting Nixon to a banquet for Deng. This resulted in the first return of Nixon to the White House since he had resigned and left in August 1974. After the banquet, Deng watched a performance at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which was also broadcast live on national television. With the US Marine band playing Getting to Know You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, the two leaders were introduced to the audience.

By Charles C. Foster | China Watch | Updated: 2018-07-03 11:07

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