When Deng Xiaoping arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington in January 1979, his country was just emerging from a long revolutionary deep freeze. No one knew much about this five-foot-tall Chinese leader. He had suddenly reappeared on the scene after twice being cashiered by Mao, who famously described him as “a needle inside a ball of cotton.” But in 1979 he knew exactly what he wanted: better relations with the US. He and President Jimmy Carter appeared to be serious about resolving differences. While reporting on these meetings, I had the impression that they were aware they were appearing in a kind of buddy film, and were using the opportunity to suggest clearly that they were ready to cooperate.
“Today we take another step in the historic normalization of relations which we have begun this year,” Carter said in welcoming Deng at a state dinner in the White House.
We share in the hope which springs from reconciliation and the anticipation of a common journey…. Let us pledge together that both the United States and China will exhibit the understanding, patience, and persistence which will be needed in order for our new relationship to survive.
They then took off for Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle, with the most unforgettable moment occurring in Simonton, Texas. Deng was attending a rodeo when a cowgirl galloped up on horseback to his front-row arena seat to present him with a ten-gallon Stetson hat. When he clapped this symbol of Americana on his diminutive head, it almost came down over his eyes. But he accomplished his goal: demonstrating to people in both countries—it was China’s first live broadcast from abroad—that bygones were bygones and it was time start anew.
Even now photos of these events from over three decades ago radiate camaraderie and a sense of leaders putting suspicion aside and trusting one another enough to allow for new ways of interacting. Their efforts, however, led only to a partial transformation of the relationship. One thing “normalization” did not, and could not, change was China’s Leninist form of one-party government. And since our two political and value systems remained opposed, an enormous block of contention continued to exist between us. What allowed some sense of fraternity to arise anyway was that Deng and Carter were able to imagine (in their different ways) that the two countries and societies might still slowly find more grounds for cooperation.
While China never had a truly democratic government under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and then Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and Deng Xiaoping, the world’s democracies were able to entertain vague hopes that as long as the door was open—and perhaps with some assistance…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.