Interpreter recalls PRC delegation's debut at UN Assembly in 1971 after restoration of lawful rights
Interpreter recalls PRC delegation’s debut at UN Assembly in 1971 after restoration of lawful rights
Published: Oct 24, 2021 08:13 PM Updated: Oct 25, 2021 12:32 AM

Editor's Note:

On November 15, 1971, headed by then Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua, the delegation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) made its debut at the United Nations (UN) Assembly Hall after its lawful seat at the UN had been restored. The delegation immediately became the focus of attention at the 26th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Its main English interpreter Tang Wensheng (Tang), a former vice-chairperson of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, witnessed that historical moment. 

In an exclusive interview with Global Times reporters Hu Yuwei and Zhao Juecheng (GT), Tang, who had served as an English interpreter for Chairman Mao Zedong and the PRC's first premier Zhou Enlai, recalled her experiences attending the 26th UNGA 50 years ago.

Profile of Tang Wensheng  Photo: Courtesy of Tang

Tang Wensheng Photo: Courtesy of Tang

GT: Before the 26th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), it was widely unexpected that the People's Republic of China could be restored to its rightful seat. What was the reaction to the good news when it reached Beijing? 

: On October 25, 1971, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the No. 2758 Resolution, in which it declared that it "Decides to restore all its rights to the People's Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it."

This resolution did not come by easily, and though it was passed half a century ago, the events of that day still stand out vividly.

The People's Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. On November 15, then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who was also China's Foreign Minister, officially informed the Secretary General of the United Nations and the President of the UN General Assembly of this, and that the Central Government of the People's Republic of China was the sole legitimate government that represented all the people of China. From 1950 to 1970, at each annual session of the UN General Assembly, the issue of China's representation in the UN was raised by an increasing number of countries, but was not resolved.

However, by October 1971, more and more countries had come to believe that it was wrong to pretend that the People's Republic of China was not the true representative of China, which was enforced by the announcement that then US president Richard Nixon would visit China in early 1972 that was made public in July 1971 following Dr. Henry Kissinger's secret visit to Beijing. 

And so, on October 25, 1971, the "important issue" draft proposed by the United States which would require a 2/3 vote to expel a UN member was defeated and the No.2758 (XXVI) resolution titled "Restoration of the lawful rights of the People's Republic of China in the United Nations" was adopted by a resounding majority of 76 in favor, 35 against, 17 abstaining and three absent. It was reported in the foreign press that upon its adoption, delegates laughed out loud, sang, shouted and pounded on the tables.

When this news arrived in Beijing, most of us were taken by surprise but still overjoyed. I was standing behind Marshal Ye Jianying on the tarmac of the Beijing Capital Airport watching Dr. Kissinger's plane vanish into the clouds after his second visit to China (this time not secret), when someone rushed over to say that the Foreign Ministry had just received the news. Marshal Ye recalled that during the ride to the airport, Dr. Kissinger had mentioned that we would have to wait another year for that to happen.

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the lawful seat of the People's Republic of China in the UN. These five decades have witnessed China's practice of multilateralism, full participation in and support for the cause of the UN. Graphic: Jin Jianyu and Xu Zihe/Global Times

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the lawful seat of the People's Republic of China in the UN. These five decades have witnessed China's practice of multilateralism, full participation in and support for the cause of the UN. Graphic: Jin Jianyu and Xu Zihe/Global Times

GT: On the way to the New York for the 26th UNGA, the Chinese delegation flew through Rangoon, Karachi, Cairo, Athens and Paris. Were there no direct flights at that time, and what kind of reception did you receive along the way?

Tang: The delegation left Beijing on a special Chinese aircraft in the afternoon of November 9, 1971, sent off with fanfare at the airport by Premier Zhou Enlai, Marshal Ye Jianying, many prominent officials and 4,000 civilians and military men. 

We changed to an Air France flight in Shanghai because at that time we had no flights of our own that could carry us to New York. I went along as an interpreter. The flight stopped over that evening at Yangon, then the capital of Burma (which is now Myanmar), where we were welcomed by then Burmese vice foreign minister and others at a reception at the airport. 

The plane stopped in the early hours of November 10 at Karachi, where we were met at the airport by Pakistani senior officials and given flower wreaths by the Pakistan-China Friendship Association. We were welcomed at Cairo by Egyptian officials and when we stopped at Athens we were met at the airport by officials from the Greek Foreign Ministry, though we had no diplomatic relations with Greece at that time. When we finally landed in Paris, a senior official from the French Foreign Ministry was at the airport to greet us.

To our astonishment, we were swamped by a tide of energetic journalists who sped in cars that would run beside the buses taking us from the airport to our Embassy where we were to spend the night, and some would stick their heads out of their car rooftops to snap pictures of this Chinese delegation heading to the UN. 

It was amusing to see in next morning's newspapers that in photos captioned as "Chinese Ambassadors" we saw our stalwart cooks clad handsomely in brand new well-tailored black woolen coats.

We were furthermore surprised to see Walter Cronkite from CBS pop into the first-class cabin where the head of the delegation was seated and start to interview him with a TV crew that appeared from nowhere. We later learned that they had bought tickets in advance, and our delegation was featured on his evening show. 

After we had settled down at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, we were startled to see one day when we were taking a meal in our reserved dining room, a photographer rush out from behind the kitchen door into the dining room, shoot pictures of us eating and disappear just as fast into the kitchen. That reminded us that we had indeed become a phenomenon. 

The classic photo of delegation head Qiao Guanhua's Laugh was taken at the conference hall. Tang Wensheng is in the middle behind Qiao. Photo: Courtesy of Tang

The classic photo of delegation head Qiao Guanhua's Laugh was taken at the UNGA. Tang Wensheng is in the middle behind Qiao. Photo: VCG

GT: What was the local reaction after the delegation arrived in the US? Did you encounter any unfriendly behavior?

Upon our arrival around noon of November 11 at Kennedy Airport, we were greeted by the permanent representatives of the 23 countries that had sponsored the No.2758 resolution as well as those of other countries, the UN head of protocol, an official from the New York City government and hundreds of American friends and overseas Chinese. 

The head of our delegation, then vice foreign minister Qiao Guanhua made a short speech on the tarmac as instructed by premier Zhou Enlai. He said, "It is a pleasure today for the delegation of the government of the People's Republic of China to come to New York to attend the 26th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. We express deep thanks to the representatives of the United Nations headquarters, the representatives of various countries and all friends who have come to meet us." He went on to say, "The Chinese people and the peoples of the world have always been friendly. The Chinese government has consistently stood for the establishment and development of normal relations with other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and has all along supported the oppressed peoples and nations in their just struggles to win freedom and independence, oppose foreign interference and become masters of their own destiny. Following the established policies of the Chinese government, our delegation will work jointly in the United Nations with the representatives of all the countries that love peace and uphold justice for the cause of safeguarding international peace and promoting human progress. The people of the United States are a great people and there exists a profound friendship between the peoples of China and the United States. We would like to take this opportunity to convey our good wishes to the people of all walks of life of New York City and to the American people."                                                                    

A heartwarming surprise came when we were strolling down the street one evening, trying to take in more of New York than the insides of conference and hotel rooms, and ran into an elderly lady with brown bags of grocery in both arms, who stopped in her tracks when she saw us and gasped, "You must be the Chinese! Welcome to New York!" That did make us feel good.

But there were also different moments. One late afternoon, a few minutes before sunset when our national flag flown at the hotel would be lowered, a small crowd outside the hotel started chanting, "Take down that flag!" and "Qiao Guanhua, Huang Hua, (the Head and Deputy Head of our delegation) defect to freedom now!" They dispersed after a few minutes and we later got to know that they had been given 20 dollars each to put on that act. They never showed up again.

From November 11-14, the main members of the delegation paid respects to then president of the General Assembly, Indonesian former foreign minister Adam Malik, delegations of friendly nations and then UN secretary general U Thant who was hospitalized.

PRC's delegates enjoy the welcome to their new seats at the UN. Photo: Courtesy of Tang

PRC's delegates enjoy the welcome to their new seats at the UN. Photo: Courtesy of Tang

GT:What was it like for the delegation to attend the General Assembly in a formal capacity representing the People's Republic of China? The delegation received a rapturous round of applause when entering the hall. Can you recall the atmosphere at the time?

On the morning of November 15, our delegation entered the General Assembly conference hall for the first time and took seat behind the place card of "China." The hall was fully packed. Delegates of different countries came up to offer hearty congratulations, surrounded by photographers tirelessly snapping away. The general debate of the 26th general assembly had long been finished, what attracted so many to the conference hall that morning was a special session to welcome the delegation of the People's Republic of China. 

When we attended the conference for the first time we saw that George H.W. Bush, then US ambassador to the United Nations, was standing there, not far away from the elevator, and he put out his hand to salute the head of our delegation and welcome us to New York.

Although he did his best, I believe he was faithfully carrying out his government's orders. He tried by all means to prevent us from getting a rightful seat in the UN. But after the resolution was passed, he also said that it showed the reality of the world and reflected what the people of most countries think.

It commenced at 10:30 with welcoming remarks from President Adam Malik, followed by a stream of speeches from 57 countries (including the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union) that continued till 6 pm. As the session went on, more and more representatives signed up to offer remarks. Due to the limit of time, some were not able to do so in person, but had their speeches included in the conference records.

After the welcoming remarks, then head of the delegation Qiao Guanhua delivered a speech amidst thundering applause. The speech was based on what Chairman Mao Zedong had shared with the delegation and others before they had left. The full text of his speech was carried in the New York Times the next day. 

50 years since then, although there are some who attempt to belittle the United Nations if they cannot control it, the United Nations still remains the core institution for addressing international affairs through cooperation. And as President Xi Jinping has made clear, China will "continue our active efforts to take China's cooperation with the United Nations to a new level". So, I believe that we can look to the future with hope for a better world.   

History has proved that unilateralism is unrealistic. The United Nations, as the broadest multilateral organization in the world, cannot be dominated by a few major powers. Only by joining hands and working together can we build a brighter world.