With Mao hovering near death, China’s political future in limbo, and Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, unable to push US-China relations to the next level, the mid-1970s saw no major new initiatives. However, when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 US presidential election, there were few indications that a major upgrade in relations between the two nations was in the offing.
Nixons’ Second Trip To China
In February of 1976, former president Richard Nixon and his wife Pat accepted an invitation to make a second trip to China. The occasion was the fourth anniversary of the Nixons’ first triumphal visit of February 1972. This time, however, Nixon was in disgrace, and China was a nearly rudderless country.
Zhou Enlai had died a month earlier, and Mao Zedong was living out his final months in near-total seclusion in Zhongnanhai. The Qingming incident was still two months away, and the Gang of Four was ginning up its campaign to denounce and destroy Deng Xiaoping’s career. Meanwhile, Hua Guofeng had only recently emerged from a lifetime of relative obscurity to become acting premier.
It was not the most auspicious time for the Nixons to be visiting China again. Under these circumstances, the Nixons’ “second coming” was a low-key affair, notable mainly for the absence of pomp and ceremony. Indeed, one of the major highlights of the Nixons’ trip was an evening of musical entertainment in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, hosted by none other than Jiang Qing herself.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The program that evening represented a potpourri of outstanding musical performances—singing, dancing, and instrumental numbers. At one point midway in the program, Jiang Qing jumped to her feet to enthusiastically applaud a young tenor, who had just completed a bravura solo vocal performance.
Politely emulating their hostess, the Nixons also arose from their seats and began clapping along with her—only to be sharply restrained by an alert State Department escort, who had recognized the inflammatory lyric of the tenor’s song: Taiwan tongbao, qilai; women yiding yao jiefang nimen—“Taiwan compatriots arise; we shall certainly liberate you!”
The Nixons quickly sat back down in their seats, remaining silent until the applause faded.
Jiang Qing only narrowly failed in her attempt to finesse the former president of the United States into openly applauding the Communist liberation of Taiwan.
Learn more about the conflict over Taiwan.
President Carter and Vance’s Proposal
The mid-1970s were marked by a sort of holding pattern. There were no major new initiatives, other than Jiang Qing’s occasional attempt to derail things. But there was no serious backsliding, either.
In an effort to break the impasse, President Carter sent his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to Beijing in August of 1977. While Vance was there, he sounded out the Chinese on a possible compromise arrangement with respect to Taiwan. The essence of Vance’s proposal was that the United States was willing, in principle, to derecognize Taiwan and to sever its treaty commitment to defend the island on two conditions.
First, the Chinese must agree to permit the United States to maintain unofficial trade and cultural relations with Taiwan; and second, the United States would continue to provide military hardware to the Republic of China on Taiwan pending a final, peaceful settlement of the Taiwan sovereignty question.
Under Vance’s proposal, the bargain would be sealed either by a credible Chinese pledge not to use military force to liberate Taiwan, or if (as expected) the Chinese refused to issue such a pledge, by a unilateral American declaration that the continued peace and tranquility of the Taiwan Straits constituted a vital American interest.
However, the Chinese side refused to cooperate with this face-saving gambit.
Learn more about Deng’s early regime.
Deng Xiaoping’s Rejection
Shortly after Vance’s return, Deng Xiaoping told a group of visiting American journalists that the normalization process had suffered a significant setback as a result of Secretary Vance’s visit.
Accusing Vance of raising false hopes concerning China’s willingness to renounce the use of force against Taiwan, Deng categorically denied that there was any such possibility; Taiwan was Chinese territory, and China alone would decide the terms and conditions of reunification. It was none of America’s business.
Deng’s flat-out rejection of the Vance initiative seemed to end any hopes of advancing the normalization process during the Carter presidency.
Common Questions about China’s Relations with the US, from Nixon to Carter Regimes
Cyrus Vance was U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State. He went to Beijing in 1977, and there he discussed with the Chinese a possible compromise arrangement with respect to Taiwan.
The essence of Vance’s proposal was that the United States was willing, in principle, to derecognize Taiwan and to sever its treaty commitment to defend the island on two conditions: first, the Chinese must agree to permit the United States to maintain unofficial trade and cultural relations with Taiwan; and second, the United States would continue to provide military hardware to the Republic of China on Taiwan pending a final, peaceful settlement of the Taiwan sovereignty question.
Deng flat-out rejected Vance’s proposal, and accused Vance of raising false hopes concerning China’s willingness to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. He said that Taiwan was Chinese territory, and China alone would decide the terms and conditions of reunification.