Few living figures of U.S.-China relations are as legendary as Chas W. Freeman, Jr., principal interpreter for President Richard Nixon’s world-changing 1972 visit to China. After more than 40 years, he still vividly remembers the details of the ice-breaking journey during the Cold War era. His first job as the president’s interpreter happened to be the historic moment.
On the cold winter morning of February 21, 1972, President Nixon and other members of the U.S. delegation arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport. After a short layover in Shanghai, Air Force One continued to Beijing to open a seven-day visit to China.
Freeman had never set foot on China’s mainland either. He clearly remembers that a large flock of birds hovered above the Hongqiao airport, but few planes took off or landed. He concluded that few in China traveled by air.
After landing at Beijing Capital Airport, President Nixon walked off the plane with his wife and reached out a hand to Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou said to Nixon: “Your handshake comes across the vastest ocean in the world—25 years of no communication.”
“I was enormously impressed by Premier Zhou himself,” recalls Freeman. “He was a thoroughly civilized man and a great diplomat. But what struck me most about China at that time was how isolated and poor it was. Today, China has transformed into one that is open to foreign people and ideas and fully engaged and connected with every corner of the world.”
During the visit, both sides signed the Shanghai Communiqué, which led to the normalization of bilateral relations and paved the way for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties.
Forecasting China’s Changes
On January 1, 1979, China and the U.S. formally established diplomatic relations. A month earlier, at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Deng Xiaoping called on the whole Party to shift work focus to socialist modernization. That moment effectively launched China’s journey to reform and opening up.
At the time, the Washington Beltway considered the big decision an empty promise and largely ignored it. But when Freeman encountered a street vendor in Beijing, he realized China was already making a tectonic shift.
In the early fall of 1979, Freeman visited Beijing again. He was then country director for China, in charge of directing and coordinating U.S. relations with China for the U.S. Department of State. He stayed at Beijing Hotel, which was the only hotel in the capital of China that came close to internationally acceptable standards, in his memory. One weekend, Freeman walked to the northeast corner of Tian’anmen, where he discovered the noodle vendor with a pushcart.
“For anyone familiar with 1970s China, this was startling,” he explains. “China’s service sector, especially its culinary element, which had been one of the great adornments of Chinese civilization, had been swamped in a tidal wave of collectivization.”
He bought a bowl of noodles. “As I enjoyed my snack, I asked the vendor what ‘work unit’ or commune he belonged to. He replied, ‘I am my own work unit.’ Puzzled, I asked him what that meant. He said he was a getihu, an individually registered enterprise. It struck me that if individuals could now start and operate their own businesses in China, something momentous might be in progress. I began to watch for signs that the Third Plenum really had kicked off a revolution in China—and found more and more evidence that it had.”
A few months later, members of the U.S. intelligence community convened in Washington D.C. to discuss how China might look in a decade or two. “Most who spoke were clearly working off the unsaid assumption for decades that China would remain poor, weak, unstable, xenophobic and politically radical.”
Upon hearing such opinions, Freeman returned to his office at the Department of State and spent the night writing a memorandum titled Forecasting Change in China: Where China Seemed to Be Going in 1980.
But his perceptions were not well received. “My suggestion to take a serious step back and a hard look at what was happening in China was pretty much ignored,” he sighs. “I was the only one who thought China might be changing fundamentally. Over time, I proved to be more right than wrong. Ironically, my estimates of how far China could and would travel over the decades to come turned out to be gross underestimates, rather than exaggerations, of China’s potential progress. I got the direction and nature of China’s changes largely right—but neither the pace nor the magnitude.”
The changes brought by China by reform and opening up over 40 years have impressed Freeman. “The changes have been immense, almost immeasurable,” he exclaims. “Living standards have risen greatly. Hundreds of millions of Chinese now travel, study and work abroad. China is no longer dependent on imported technology and equipment. It remains open to both but is itself now an innovator and a producer of intellectual property.”
Looking back at his experience, Freeman jokes that his encounter with the noodle vendor was a rare moment of “satori.” Freeman notes that many cases were forecast incorrectly by analysts in the U.S. and other countries, including the end of the bipolar world order dominated by the contention between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “Our analysts were over-specialized, each with a tendency to project the realities of the times as they looked into the future,” he recalls. “They tended to see the waves but not the sea that was driving them. China’s development reflected the synergy of many policy changes. Together, they present perhaps the clearest evidence that over time, policy can change reality in radical ways.”
“Trade War a Mistake”
In Freeman’s opinion, China’s diplomats today are more professional in terms of “conducting outreach, reporting and analysis activities” than they were in the past. “Like Chinese culture, they are much more familiar and comfortable with foreign ideas and habits,” he illustrates. “This makes them much more effective as diplomats.”
Over the past seven decades, China’s flexible foreign policy has helped the country survive the Cold War as it created a peaceful environment for further development. “At first China was excluded from active participation in the world order, then a mainstay of it, now a defender of its institutions against an increasingly erratic U.S.,” says Freeman. “China’s current role in international affairs is no longer passive. It is creating institutions and harmonizing standards of international behavior to benefit not just itself but also other countries.”
However, China’s rapid return to wealth and strength has made some in the White House panic. They claim that the rise of China has weakened the international system and that China is determined to become the dominant power of the world.
In an article published on June 13, 2019, Freeman refuted this assertion. “When you take the time to listen to what Chinese say among themselves about their aspirations, it appears they only want respect and a bit of courteous consideration from formerly scornful foreigners. Like their ancestors, they demand dignity and the freedom to prosper in domestic tranquility.”
“China’s rise has added new prosperity to the world economy and strengthened the international system rather than weakened it,” he says. “In many ways, China remains committed to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which are consistent with the Westphalian world order and seek to resolve problems through consultation rather than by force—in other words, within the United Nations Charter and other standards of international law.”
“However, China’s rise inevitably affects the balance of power and prestige in ways that are disturbing to those whose influence is relatively diminished by China’s growing wealth and strength. Both they and China will have to exercise caution and display mutual consideration as they adjust to changing relationships.”
Handling China-U.S. relations is a big challenge for both sides. The Trump administration has chosen to get tough on China. By waging a trade war against China and blacklisting China’s high-tech companies, the U.S. is attempting to hobble China and smother its high-tech industry.
Freeman believes that attempts to hurt China are more likely to weaken and impoverish America than to halt China’s progress. In the process, “China will become more open, but America itself will become more closed.”
“The trade war is a mistake that hurts both China and the U.S. in the long run as well as the short term,” Freeman insists. “It threatens to topple the world order originally arranged by the U.S. This order is what made China’s rise possible. China has every reason to exercise restraint and focus on bolstering the elements of that order against disruption by the deterioration in relations with the U.S. that the trade war has catalyzed. The U.S. needs to focus on rebuilding its own competitiveness, not on impairing China’s.”
However, Freeman remains optimistic about the future. “The two countries are deep into a bad period that is likely to last for some time but, ultimately, common sense and shared interests will bring us together again.”
(Ms. Xu Shuyuan also contributed to this article.)
Chas W. Freeman, Jr., born in 1943, is a retired American diplomat who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993 to 1994. Freeman worked as Deputy Chief of Mission and Charg¨¦ d¡¯Affaires in the American embassies in both Bangkok (1984-1986) and Beijing (1981-1984). He was Director for Chinese Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 1979 to 1981. He was the principal American interpreter during Nixon¡¯s historic visit to China in 1972. In addition to his diplomatic experience in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia and Europe, he accepted a tour of duty in India.