As we observed in You Should Look Back, the introduction to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, the year 1979 was of outsized significance in the history of post-Mao China. As the Party reoriented its goals to revive policies effectively abandoned from 1953 when the socialist transformation of the national economy had set the nation on the path to economic ruination, it cracked down on popular dissent (something eloquently expressed by Wei Jingsheng in his open opposition to the Party’s leading autocrat — Deng Xiaoping — and his call for democracy), announced the Four Cardinal Principles that vouchsafed the Party’s domination and claimed suzerainty over Hong Kong, a territory that it had never ruled.
Indeed, over the twelve months from December 1978 to December 1979, the Communists made it perfectly clear that:
- The need for major economic change would always have to be balanced with Party dominance;
- The opening up to the world was in essence structural and the potential for the growth of social malaise was heeded;
- The draconian policies of the 1950s, including the mass murders of the early 1950s and the betrayal of Chinese industrialists, workers, democrats and academics, remained unassailable;
- The purge of pro-democratic and liberal thought in 1957 was reaffirmed;
- The pre-eminence of the Party and its leaders was further institutionalised;
- The need to attack bourgeois ideas related to democracy, universal suffrage and human rights was codified;
- The dangers of the West remained alarming and the historical mission of the Party as well as the superiority of the socialist system were undeniable;
- The urgency of ideological and cultural policies in support of Party primacy and its historical vision dating back to the nineteenth century was recognised; and,
- The promotion of the cult of martyrs and martial heroes was revived.
It was at this juncture that, on 15 December 1978, the administration of US President Jimmy Carter announced the most dramatic development in post-1949 US-China relations:
…following months of secret negotiations, the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that they would recognize one another and establish official diplomatic relations. As part of the agreement, the United States recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and declared it would withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China [ROC]).
— China Policy (1977-1980), Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State
On 1 January 1979, the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with it as the sole legitimate government of China.
The following essay —’Fools with Initiative: A Note on President Carter’s “China Shock” ‘ — by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans, 1935-2014) originally appeared in The New Republic on 10 March 1979. It was written in response to the Carter administration’s recognition of Beijing. It is reproduced here from The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (New York: Holt, 1986), pp.136-140, the full text of which can be consulted via the Internet Archive.
Leys’s essay is included in Appendix V of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. Titled ‘1972 朝 — Coups, Nixon & China’, that appendix is a joint miniseries that is featured both in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium and in Spectres & Souls — Vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021. It consists of eight sections: 蒞 — Nixon’s Press Corps; 迓 — ‘Welcome to China, Mr. President!’; 撼 — A Week That Changed The World; 鞭 — The President & The Chairman in Retrospect; 迥 — Dissing Dissent; 見 — A storied Handshake, an excised Interpreter & a muted Anthem; 有目共睹 — Fools with Initiative; and, 檄 — A 2012 Letter to the Chinese Embassy.
Throughout the first decade of Xi Jinping we have repeatedly made the case that, although the Chairman of Everything’s glum rule was not necessarily inevitable, its nature, as well as its contours, were predicated on the events of 1978-1979. With its mixture of old ambitions and new aspirations, its flexibility and rigidity, its cleaving to autocracy while window-dressing it with beguiling blather about reform, and above all its concern to maintain the Communist Party’s unchallenged domination of the Rivers and Mountains of China, 1978-1979 was not only Year One of post-Mao China, it was also the real starting point of Xi Jinping’s New Era.
We are reprinting ‘Fools with Initiative’ both to remind those who may have forgotten this long-lost message and to inform those who are either too young or so naïve as to think that Xi Jinping is an aberration rather than being a quintessential embodiment of Communist Party rule.
The ‘China shock’ of the Carter administration also led to a new twist on the story of an old symbol of China, the 龍 lóng, or Chinese dragon. As we noted in the Proem to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:
In Taiwan … the dragon had resurfaced in the unlikely context of the US government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China on 1 January 1979 and the abandonment of three decades of diplomatic support for the Republic of China, aka ‘Free China’. At the time, the campus song-writer Hou Dejian (侯德健, 1956-) composed ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ 龍的傳人 to express the melancholy mood of the island and a profound frustration with China’s autocratic traditions; then and subsequently the song has generally been misinterpreted as being a paean for the outsized scaly creature and its descendants, the Chinese People.
— from A Winking Owl, a Volant Dragon & the Tiger’s Arse, 10 January 2022
The Chinese rubric of this appendix is 有目共睹 yǒu mù gòng dǔ. Literally, ‘everyone with eyes can see’, although we use it as an oblique reference to a passage in Chapter 13 of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the first book of The New Testament and a text with which the churchy President Carter was familiar:
And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. …
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Society
20 December 2022
- 鞭 — The President & The Chairman in Retrospect, China Heritage, 24 February 2022
- Hong Kong Apostasy, China Heritage, 1 z July 2017-
Fools with Initiative
A Note on President Carter’s “China Shock”
This note was written in 1979. Some of the fears it expressed did not materialize. However, it may still present a certain relevance as a reminder of principles that are going to be violated once more this time in the mindless and cowardly betrayal by the West of the five million people of Hong Kong.
— Simon Leys, The Burning Forest (1986), p.136
The establishment of diplomatic relations with Peking was long overdue: It should have been done as early as 1949. Not to have done it at that time was a mistake. Mistakes can become a source of new obligations that should not be lightly discarded. In old-fashioned ethics, when a wealthy gentleman made a poor girl pregnant, he was at least supposed to support the mother and child, and the prospect of a brilliant marriage with some heiress could not suddenly free him from his moral obligation. The American mistake, early on, of siding with Chiang Kai-shek against a majority of the Chinese people, against history and against common sense, eventually bore one entirely unexpected fruit: modern, dynamic Taiwan, with its thriving seventeen million people, who, at this stage, do not have the slightest desire to become subjects of the People’s Republic and who should be guaranteed the right to pursue their own separate destiny as long as they deem fit.
The United States thus had to reconcile two contradictory demands: the demand of common sense, which was to recognize Peking, and the demand of conscience, which was to protect the people of Taiwan. This seemingly intractable contradiction was quite satisfactorily solved in practice. A triangular relationship progressively evolved between Washington, Taipei, and Peking in a way that smoothly and efficiently met the basic requirements of all three parties. The main interest of the United States — and of world peace — would have been to preserve this balance.
The “normalization” that Carter so rashly and irresponsibly improvised destroyed a precious equilibrium and introduced dangerous instability. The Soviet Union has been needlessly provoked, Peking has been foolishly emboldened, and Taipei feels cornered and pushed toward desperate and ominous decisions. An element of unpredictability has thus been injected at once on all sides. In this respect, the Chinese adventure in Vietnam, which is but a beginning, was a direct outcome of Deng Xiaoping’s surrealistic American experiences: having gauged to its full measure the naïveté, malleability, and incoherence of Carter and his Asian experts, Deng felt confident enough to launch this frightful gamble, at the risk of jeopardizing his modernization plans and presenting the Soviet Union with a golden pretext for the military strike it has dreamed of launching for the last twelve years.
These alarming developments are all the more deplorable because they were perfectly avoidable. “Normalization” could have been achieved under far safer conditions if it had been worked out more cautiously and at a slower pace. It could even have been postponed without any real harm. The two main purposes for which Peking is seeking closer relations with the United States are (1) protection against the Soviet menace, and (2) modernization of China. These two objectives, both of which deserve American sympathy and support, were already essentially secured within the framework of the already existing de facto relations. If Peking wished to upgrade the relationship and insisted on adorning it with full ambassadorial paraphernalia, it should have paid the price. In particular, it should have provided guarantees about the security of Taiwan. All that Washington had to do was sit tight and wait. Peking had no other option. It cannot mend its fences with the Soviet Union; the Sino-Russian conflict, deeply embedded in history and determined by permanent factors of political geography, lies beyond the reach and control of modern statesmen. And Peking cannot cancel the modernization drive without committing political suicide. Thus it had to accept either a continuation of the de facto relationship, or “normalization” on American terms.
What Carter proudly announced to the nation at the end of last year was in fact that he had given away, without any compensation, this unique bargaining advantage enjoyed by the United States. In exchange he had obtained nothing, and he seemed very pleased with it. The reasons for this incredible marché de dupes are manifold. There is the pathological psychology of a compulsive achiever who, unable to understand the old wisdom of Kipling’s law that “most of the things in the world are achieved by judicious leaving alone” is further driven into frantic activity by a show-business-oriented society. “Judicious leaving alone” achieves many things in the world, but not newspaper headlines and TV spectaculars. The irresponsibility of Carter’s political advisers and China experts also contributed. Give an academic the delusion that he may play a historic role, and you can turn any decent scholar into a public hazard. As the Russian proverb says, “to have a fool is bad, but to have a fool with initiative is worse.” For all the expertise displayed in Carter’s China policy, it could as well have been designed by Shirley MacLaine. One small example: from Nixon’s Shanghai communiqué to Carter’s “normalization” communiqué, in the Chinese language versions, the Chinese managed a decisive verbal escalation without provoking any reaction on the American side: the phrase “the United States acknowledges the Chinese position on Taiwan” thus became “the United States admits the Chinese position on Taiwan.” Apparently no one was able, or bothered, to read the Chinese text!
The precise timing of Carter’s China initiative has led to much speculation among independent China observers. Since it occurred at the exact moment when it could inflict the most grievous damage upon Taiwan’s political life, the Chinese on Taiwan find it hard to accept the notion that this might have been purely coincidental. Taiwan is by no means a democratic country. Over the years, however, the democratic trend has grown in strength, even finding an echo within a certain fraction of the Kuomintang itself, among some younger and more enlightened members of the leadership. Though still represented by only a minority within the party, this democratic tendency, supported by a majority of the population and better attuned to the reality of modern Taiwan, had time on its side and was promised eventual victory.
A most crucial step in that direction was provided by the national elections, due for late December of last year (1978). In contrast with earlier, perfunctory elections, this time the electoral campaign was developing in a way that impressed even Taiwan’s most severe critics. The political debate was free, bold, and thorough; many non-party and opposition candidates were fairly sure to win, to the utter dismay of the Kuomintang die-hards. And then, when victory was practically within the reach of so many of these champions of democracy, came Carter’s announcement — a godsent opportunity for the old conservatives, who immediately decreed a state of emergency, canceled the elections, and even arrested several leading opposition personalities. Why could Carter not wait just a few more days? Was it a plot? Was it callousness? Was it ignorance? Though it is unbelievable to the Chinese, the correct explanation seems, alas, to be ignorance. Carter’s China “think tank” was not aware that there was an election campaign approaching its climax in Taiwan. The U.S. government spends billions of dollars on the gathering of intelligence. And yet, unfortunately, it did not possess the information that you and I obtain every day for a few cents, simply by buying the newspaper. In a world where democracy is already on the wane, Carter thus unwittingly destroyed, with one mighty blow, this precious and fragile attempt at developing one new democracy in Asia.
Reflecting upon this singular achievement of a man who, without doubt, is lofty-minded and utterly honest, one nearly comes to regret the time when American politics was in the hands of mere crooks.
- Simon Leys, ‘Fools with Initiative: A Note on President Carter’s “China Shock”,’ The New Republic, 10 March 1979, collected in The Burning Forest (1986), pp.136-140