Former presidential interpreter, Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. discusses China, while urging the US to maintain healthy relations

By Wen Yan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/31 20:55:28

Charles Freeman Photo: Wen Yan/GT

Editor's Note:

Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. is an American diplomat who worked as the chief interpreter for US President Richard Nixon during his 1972 China visit. Global Times (GT) reporter Wen Yan interviewed Ambassador Freeman to discuss China-US relations and China's 40-year reform and opening-up.

GT: When did you become aware of the reform and opening up of China?

Freeman: When talking about reform, we have to talk about Deng Xiaoping, he is a remarkable man, and I respect him greatly. I got to know him quite well. But I watched what he did, really smart and very effective. Anyway, 40 years ago, so Deng Xiaoping announced the formalization of US-China relations on December 16, 1978. Two days later, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party opened. That was a revolution. Two decisions while one strategy. Deng knew exactly what he was doing. He was going to use the US to help China to  open to the outside world and to sweep away some of the Soviet system in China,and to replace it with something uniquely Chinese. So it was a remarkable thing.

But Nobody here in the US believed it. People who were interested in China's foreign affairs read a lot of "Dangbagu" (stereotypical Party jargon) and thought it was more "Dangbagu." 

I did not understand how real it was until the beginning of September 1979. 

I was staying at the Beijing Hotel. At that time, I was in charge of US-China relations for the State Department. I was visiting the US Embassy, and I went for a walk out to Nanchizi. At the corner of Nanchizi and Changan Dajie, there was somebody pushing a cart selling noodles. So, I went up to him, I bought a bowl of noodles, I asked him , I said, "Which danwei (division) do you belong to?" He said, "I am self-employed." 

So I said , "Wow, this is a revolution." Because there had been no "Xiao Chi" (street snacks) in China for two decades. Everything had been nationalized. No individual enterprise. 

Anyway, I came back here to Washington DC, and I said to people , "This is real, this is not a "Dangbagu." And they said, "are you crazy?" 

Finally , in February , 1980, there was a meeting at the Smithsonian, and that night, there were probably 50 of the top China specialists from the government, universities and the so on. The question was "What is Chinese looking like in 2000." 

I was the only one there who said "Deng is changing everything. And you cannot take everything for granted. Otherwise, you will get the future wrong. You need to look at it with fresh eyes." Everybody disagreed. And they just laughed at me, so I was very upset. 

Back then, I commuted on motorcycle. I went back to the State Department at 9 o'clock that night, and I stayed up the whole night writing a memorandum titled, "China in the year of 2000." And I said China is going to go much faster and it is going to do this and do that.

I then distributed it to State Department and to diplomats in Hong Kong. Both believed that I had overestimated China. Looking back, I was wrong because I underestimated China , but anybody else said I overstated China. I only got one thing wrong. I thought the Soviet Union would still exist in 2000. But everybody else also thought that. So we were all wrong. At that time, I had no idea China could go as fast as it did, or it could change as much as it did. 

GT: How do you describe the achievement of the 40-year reform and opening up of China?

Freeman: I began to know China during the "Gang of Four" period, and knew China  in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Before the reform and opening-up, women all dressed the same. No style. Suddenly, color, make-up, fashion, appeared. Market came about. People began to find solutions to problems. They did not wait for other people to tell them, they took the initiative. The Party created some rules, but let people do what they wanted to do. Deng Xiaoping trusted the Chinese people. So he let them do things. There were all sorts of discussions. When things went too far, he went to stop it. But he let people do things. 

He said, "practice is the only criterion for testing truth," and "crossing the river by feeling the stones," and "it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice." He really wanted the result, he did not care about how the result came.

Forty years ago, Americans were concerned about China being weak, and that it was vulnerable. We used China to contain the Soviet Union. China today is an actor, a participant, a great power. You know, that was a remarkable transformation. The US has had some trouble adjusting to it. I think it is a good thing. The US has to adjust its mentality to do this. 

We are richer today and China is richer because we worked together. So,  we have a lot of influences. Today, many Chinese students are studying here, they don't all like the US, but they learn things. They are more accurate to understand the US and the Western world.

So, this relationship is really good for China, and really good for the US, I think. And I think it still could be. But we are in a bad period, worse than a strategic competitor. We are an adversary now. That is not good. I thought the US got huge advantages from US-China relations. Not because China indirectly helped the US broke down the Soviet Union. We used China to contain the Soviet Union. China played a big role in the final end of the Soviet system. 

But I don't think we could become enemies. People are talking about another Cold War, that is Mr. Pence seems to suggest. but I don't believe it. Why? Because history never repeats itself. History sometimes echoes  what is going on. We don't want China to become another Soviet Union. If the US fights with China, it will lose more allies. Nobody wants to choose sides. Everybody wants to standby. 

China cannot be isolated since its economic system is completely integrated into the world economy. Supply chain is everywhere. China cannot leave the world, and the world cannot leave China. So, you can't isolate China. This is very different from the Soviet Union period.  

GT: What are your suggestion on China's future development?

Freeman: Pretty simple. China needs to keep it cool, not get angry. Leave the door open, so when Trump is gone, it can build a new relationship with the US. 

It may take four years, or 20. But in the end, China and the US will be on the same planet. And we have to deal with each other. 

I remember in 1995 after I retired from the government, I went to Beijing with the group. We met with a group of Chinese scholars with the subject of China's foreign policy interests, particularly after the collapse of Soviet Union. 

These scholars said that the Soviet Union is gone, but Russia will come back. And when it comes back, we want it to become our friend, not our enemy. 

China needs to be very careful with the US, because if the US goes down, it does self-destructive things. But in the end, we will come back. When we come back, China should be ready for a more cooperative relationship.  

This is the first thing, don't lose your temper. Second, China has benefitted enormously from the world order that the US created, WTO, the whole structure of the international law, the World Bank, and so on. You can't image modern China without these things. China should not let these things disappear. 

China created AIIB without others. It has the same rules as the World Bank or Asia Development Bank, or even better, there have been some improvement, so it is not a competitor of the World Bank, or Asia Development Bank. They are complement. If the US rules WTO, China should create some organization that does the same thing WTO did.  

To take the AIIB as an example, China did not break up the international rule and order, instead it was the supplement of international order. You preserve the best future of the current order, and try to cooperate with all other countries that try to preserve the best future of the current order, like Japan and Europe, so what do you do? you try to find the way to settle trade without US dollar. So the US sanctions don't affect you. You can retain your independency and sovereignty. You work with other countries that have the same interests. If the US likes to drop off, OK. Eventually, you need us just as we need you.

GT: Do you have many family members who are interested in learning Chinese and appreciate Chinese culture?

Freeman: In late 19th century and early 20th century, some of my family members helped to create the Social Science Department of today's Peking University, Some worked for Sun Yat-sen and was the original designer of San Xia(the Three Gorges Dam). 

I discovered China when I was at Harvard Law School and I became very interested in Chinese, but I did not know much of my family history. I found out later and I became very interested in China. 

The reason was very strategic. It was the early 1960's, I thought  geopolitics of the time was unstable given the confrontation between the US and Soviet Union. The US had to reach out to China. I want to be there when it happens. So, when I joined the Foreign Service, I wanted to go some places related to China. At that time, I did not know how to speak Chinese at all. So I started to learn Chinese on January 2, 1969. Just in the time to prepare for the opening of China-US relations in 1972. I learned Mandarin (Putonghua) and Min Nan Hua. Family history, yes. But really strategic interests on my part.

GT: According to the Washington Post, Vice President Mike Pence said China must make massive changes that the US is demanding in its economic, military and political activities. What's your take on the fact that some US politicians insist on China making changes? 

Freeman: I don't agree with Mr. Pence's view. I don't think China needs those requirements. Why? Because essentially what Mr. Pence is asking is that China continuing being No. 2 and following the US. China passed that. We had to be equals now. 

Also I don't agree to the assumptions that he brings to the questions. China did not break international rules and order. China is expanding the rules and orders not narrow it by creating AIIB. US is actually doing more of that than China now. 

I don't believe it is reasonable to ask China to give up "Made in China 2025" program. China has the right to develop its high technology and economy if it can. I think there are some serious issues between the US and China, but not unnegotiable demand. I think "seeking common interests while preserving differences" is the right way to perceive and is a good approach, but Mr. Pence's approach is not. So, I am very much against what he said.  

For 73 years, the US has been a dominant power. Our history does not includes cooperating with other countries on the equal bases. Now we have to share with China. On the global level, since the US has been the super power for quite long time, now it has to share with others countries, among them, China is the most notable one. 

The world is more complicated. The US should get used to that. The US needs to rediscover the policy and a strategy, not forcing other countries to do what the US wants. That is not diplomacy. 

GT: While China is emphasizing the deepening of reform and opening-up, the US is withdrawing from various international organizations and treaties. What is your view on the China-US relations against this backdrop? 

Freeman: I don't think the US is setting a good example. I hope China will not drop off the treaties and organizations. As I suggested I think the best strategy for China is actually to try to preserve these. 

If the US wants to leave, ok. This is the mistake by the US. There is the famous saying by Napoleon, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making the mistake." So, Why should China correct the US when the US is making the mistake? 

May be you can look at US-China relations in two ways, one is because we are fighting over something, it is harder for Chinese to reform, because politically you cannot give in to the US. So, this is harder. 

On the other hand, may be the pressure is good. May be the pressure gives China a reason to change. So in the end, it will be the Chinese side to decide what China is going to do. 

I think China will use the pressure to improve itself. If I am a Chinese company, what I learned from the trade war is that I can't rely on the US. So what am I going to do? I am going to do everything I can first to find other sources, Europe or Japan, or developing domestic production, which is better yet. 

The US ' purpose is to put China down, the result is to lift China up. Because now china has a big incentive to develop its own technology. So, the US is like lifting a rock only to drop it on its own feet. That is why I don't like Pence's speech. He said: the US always helps China. I don't know, US wants to help China, but sometimes, we did not.

Newspaper headline: INSEPARABLE TIES


blog comments powered by Disqus