• U.S.

China: Enter Smiling

4 minute read

Zhao comes calling on the U.S. “There is a saying,” Premier Zhao Ziyang once remarked of his agricultural experiments in China’s Sichuan province, ” ‘When you cross the river, you grope for the stones’ But you must cross the river. You cannot just jump over it.” This week Zhao will apply that delicate maxim to the troubled waters of Chinese-U.S. relations, which until three months ago were in their most turbulent state since Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972. As he left Peking for his first visit to the U.S. and talks with President Reagan this week, Zhao indicated a disarming willingness to help eliminate the obstacles that have stood in the way of closer relations between the two countries. Among the major difficulties: Washington’s granting of political asylum to Chinese Tennis Player Hu Na; Peking’s curtailment of cultural exchanges with the U.S.; a Chinese boycott of American agricultural products; and, most troublesome of all, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Zhao’s background would hardly seem to have prepared him to solve such problems. He has traveled abroad relatively little and speaks no English. Yet he is at ease with foreigners and has a reputation as a deft, and occasionally witty, diplomat. After he became a member of the Politburo in 1979, he surprised many Chinese, long bored by tight restrictions on dress, by appearing in public in a Western tie and jacket, the first high official to do so since the Cultural Revolution. Like most of China’s present leaders, Zhao was brutalized by the Red Guards. In 1967 he was paraded through the streets of Canton in a dunce’s cap and denounced as “a stinking remnant of the landlord class.” He has come a long way from that parade, and in the process has effected a more substantive revolution of his own. His agricultural reforms as governor of Sichuan (among them: allowing peasants to keep some profits) increased productivity by 25%. They were subsequently adopted for the nation as a whole.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s No. 1 leader in fact if not in title, was so impressed that he promoted Zhao to the top government post of Premier in 1980. Since then Zhao has assumed increasing responsibility for foreign policy and emerged as the leading proponent of closer ties with Washington. At a Western-style news conference for U.S. and Canadian reporters last week in Peking’s Great Hall of the People, Zhao, 64, dapper in a trim-cut suit and polka-dotted tie, fielded questions for more than an hour. He seized the occasion to set the tone of his forthcoming visit, sketching out areas of cooperation between the U.S. and China and skillfully down-playing difficulties of the past. When reporters alluded to one of the more recent “difficulties”—President Reagan’s reference to Taiwan as the “Republic of China” during his visit to Japan in November—Zhao acknowledged that the President’s feeling of friendship for Taiwan was understandable. In a noteworthy gesture of conciliation, Zhao added that he would not ask Reagan to stop U.S. arms sales to Taiwan “completely and immediately.”

Administration officials are just as eager to improve relations. President Reagan plans to visit China in April. Last year, to ease tensions further, the Administration lifted U.S. technology-export-control regulations that put China in the same restricted group as the Soviet Union, thereby permitting the sale of sensitive technology to Peking. That in turn paved the way for two other agreements that Zhao and Reagan will sign at the White House. The first is an accord on industrial and technological cooperation aimed at expanding American involvement in the development of Chinese industry and commerce. The second is the renewal of a 1978 scientific and technological agreement. Negotiations are also under way for an accord on nuclear cooperation and a treaty to define investors’ rights in each country.

U.S. officials pointed out last week that despite recent squabbles, notable advances have been made. Bilateral trade has spiraled from $95.9 million in 1972 to $4.3 billion in 1983. American tourists to China have grown in number from 10,000 in 1978 to 150,000 last year. Joint research projects—about 300 in 21 different fields ranging from soybean production to earthquake prediction—are also under way. All in all, it would seem, quite a few stepping stones on which to cross troubled waters.

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