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CHINA: Tying the Sino-American Knot

7 minute read

Fireworks, protests and a solemn call for peace

Peking last week celebrated the advent of Sino-American relations with soda pop, champagne toasts, demands for free speech and freer sex, and a binge of disco dancing—most of which, as the Chinese have been quick to learn, goes better with Coke. Thanks to the time difference between the capitals of the two nations, Peking got a 13-hour head start on normalization over Washington. Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing launched the New Year’s Day occasion with a solemn call for world peace. As fireworks exploded outside the U.S. liaison office in Peking, Teng raised a glass of California champagne to Leonard Woodcock, the chief of the American mission, who is expected to be named the first U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic. In an elaborate toast, the husky-voiced Vice Premier said, “I feel certain that the far-reaching influence the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries exerts upon the defense of world peace will become more and more evident with the passage of time.”

In Washington, the ceremony mirroring the activities in Peking took place in China’s liaison office on Connecticut Avenue. One eye popper for the 500 guests was an American flag that the Chinese had tacked on the wall—but backward, its stripes pointed to the left. Unruffled by this bizarre display, Vice President Walter Mondale rejoiced over “the dawn of a new and bountiful era” and hailed China as “a key force for global peace.” In response, Ch’ai Tse-min, head of the Chinese mission, declared that the new Sino-American ties would serve to “combat the expansion and aggression of hegemonism”—a reference to the Soviet Union. Exhilarated by the festivities, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had long urged U.S. recognition of Peking, threw his arms around Ch’ai.

In another part of the capital, a pall of mourning hung over the former embassy of the newly derecognized Republic of China. There, a disconsolate crowd of about 300 people, many actually crying, gathered to watch as the flag of Taiwan was lowered for the last time. Demonstrations for and against recognition of Peking were held in Washington, San Francisco and New York City. Two thousand Chinese Americans marched along the winding streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown in support of the Peking government, while 5,000 angry protesters held their own parade, shouting “Long live Taiwan!”

Meanwhile, the Carter Administration was making extensive plans to entertain Teng when he makes his state visit to the U.S. later this month. The proposed program includes a trip to Texas, where Teng can discuss buying oil equipment, a journey to a big Midwestern farm and an extravaganza at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

Though Washington officials had cause for their enthusiasm, the personal triumph last week belonged to Teng. For 40 minutes, the diminutive Chinese leader sat perched on a blue silk sofa in Woodcock’s living room as guests were served an appropriate, but unsettling, combination of Coca-Cola, Chinese orange soda pop, apple pie and egg rolls. Teng chain-smoked and drank local beer as he listened to Woodcock’s plea for more living and working space for U.S. diplomats when the liaison office becomes a full-fledged embassy on March 1.

The next day, Teng autographed his cover portrait as TIME’s Man of the Year for eight U.S. Congressmen from the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee. The group had come to Peking to discuss the future of U.S.China trade. Teng took the occasion to invite the most vehement congressional opponent of normalization, Senator Barry Goldwater, to come to Peking for a talk. “My views have changed in the past, and perhaps Senator Goldwater’s will too,” he said genially.

Teng then met with a contingent of American correspondents, including TIME’s Marsh Clark, Hong Kong bureau chief. Clearly in a less festive mood, the Vice Premier reminded Washington that Peking had not ruled out the forcible takeover of Taiwan as the price for U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic. China, he said, had “taken note” of President Carter’s wish that reunification should take place peacefully, but, he added, “We cannot tie our hands on this matter.”

While Teng savored his victory over Chinese Communism’s isolationist traditions, ordinary people were enjoying the surprising turn of events too. “Let the people say what they wish,” cried the Peking People’s Daily. “The heavens will not fall.” On walls in the capital, posters appeared with inscriptions in English such as LOVE and I WANT TO SPEAK ENGLISH WITH AMERICAN PEOPLE. Other posters announced a general strike by 50,000 youths from Yunnan province who had been sent out from cities to work in communes. A group of students and workers posted a mimeographed newspaper entitled The People’s Forum, devoted to the theme that “in the age of computers in the world, the feudal imperial system still exists in China.” In Shanghai, a 29-page poster quoted liberally from the American Declaration of Independence, concluding that “if the government abuses people’s rights, the people have the right to abolish the government and create a new one.”

One popular Peking poster demanded sexual liberation. Official insistence on late marriage and attempts to control premarital sex were “a cruel crime that destroys young hearts and bodies,” it declared. The January issue of the journal China Reconstructs naturally blamed the “suppression of love” on Mao’s widow, Chiang Ch’ing, and her Gang of Four. “All love was labeled sensual, vulgar, cheap and obscene,” the magazine charged. Expressing widespread relief over the end of this state of affairs, Wang Min, an employee of the weather bureau in Tangshan, wrote to the magazine: “A few years ago love seemed to me something vulgar, a petty-bourgeois sentiment. The proletariat did not harbor such ideas, I thought. Now my eyes have been opened to the fact that love is an important part of the life of proletarian revolutionaries.”

Chinese couples, meanwhile, began to make contact on the dance floor. For the first time since 1966, when the Cultural Revolution outlawed all social dancing as decadent, students at Peking University were trying out some stately fox trots. Before the normalization ceremonies, Chinese officials at Peking’s International Club began dancing cautiously to the disco beat of Stayin’ Alive from Saturday Night Fever. Peking Radio startled its listeners by repeatedly playing Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land (“From California to the New York Island, . . . This land was made for you and me”).

Even more compelling for the Chinese, accustomed to a fare of jingoism on television, was the airing of the 1957 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Gina Lollobrigida as the sultry Esmeralda in a low-cut red gown. Also shown on TV was a short film on America provided by the U.S. Government and, most surprising of all, a documentary on Taiwan that contrasted with the routine depiction of the island as a cesspool of oppression and poverty. The film showed the prosperous city of Taipei, well-run private farms and Buddhist monks at worship.

As part of their modernization program, China’s leaders are discussing plans with U.S. Steel and a Japanese firm to build a $1 billion iron ore processing complex in the north. Still, the Chinese were taking another step that seemed to weigh against modernization, the showing in several Peking movie houses of Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 mournful satire on the brutalizing aspects of overmechanization. The sight of Chaplin trapped on the assembly line could set Chinese citizens pondering the evils, as well as the blessings, of modernization.

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