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An Interview with Jimmy Carter

The thirty-ninth President of the United States looks back on forty years of diplomatic relations with China, and providing solutions for mankind together.

By James Chau

Jimmy Carter invented the post-presidency president.

Since leaving the White House, he and Rosalynn Carter have extended their legacies as global champions of civil and human rights, by safeguarding free elections, building affordable housing, informing public policy on mental health, almost eradicating Guinea Worm Disease, and ensuring that inclusive prosperity and social justice are embedded in our collective conscience.

Indeed, so deep is the impact of their work today, that instead of standing as a cavernous monument in the long shadow of the presidential past, The Carter Center, and the extraordinary women and men who work for it, is a living exercise in faithful and moral leadership.

But I also remember Jimmy Carter for what he achieved in the Oval Office: as a co-architect, with Deng Xiaoping, of the modern birth of U.S.-China relations, and for leveraging the talent of over a billion members of this human family for the improvement of mankind.

When I first interviewed him last year on my 40th birthday at the house his parents built in Plains, Georgia, I left with a feeling that peace was possible. But, after our second interview on the 40th birthday of U.S.-China relations, I left with a shaken awakening that that peace is achieved if these two countries – their leaders and their people – follow the actions of the two men who began this story.

The following conversation was recorded at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 18, 2019:

JAMES CHAU: I heard the story about you being born on the same day as China [October 1, 1924], but you are 25 years older?

PRESIDENT CARTER: (laughs) That’s right.

JC: That makes you a great civilization!

PC: Deng Xiaoping thought that was quite significant, that fate would let me have my birthday on the same day as the birthday of the People’s Republic of China.

JC: Fate has played a beautiful part in many areas of your life. You will forever be linked to the events of 1979, but your story with China began much earlier – as a boy, when you gave a nickel a week to help build schools and hospitals for Chinese children. What interested you even back then about a country on the other side of the world?

PC: I was a developed Christian, a Baptist, and our number one heroes in our lives were the women who went to China as missionaries for the Baptist convention. When they came home, we would be very excited if they would visit our church and tell us about China. The missionaries asked all of the young people, I was only five or six years old at the time, if we would give five cents a week that would go towards building schools and hospitals to help the Chinese children, so I was very proud of that. When Deng Xiaoping and I had our meeting at the banquet at the White House, he asked me if there was any one wish that I had. I said, “Well, I wish that we could resume that relationship that we used to have when I was a child with our missionaries and with Christianity.” He said, “What would you want specifically?” I told him that I would like to have freedom of worship in China and the distribution of bibles and return of American missionaries, and he said “Oh, that’s a surprise. I’ll let you know tomorrow morning.” The next morning he said, “I’ve thought about it a lot and we will change the law to guarantee freedom of worship in China. We’ll authorize the distribution of bibles – but no missionaries.” He said the missionaries that America sent over in my early boyhood looked upon themselves as better than the Chinese. They were arrogant and they also tried to change the Chinese culture. Since then, China’s become the number one growth country in Christianity, both in Catholicism and Protestantism. I think the largest bible distributor in the world is also in China, so I’ve been very proud of that.

JC: Did he call you at 4am, like he did when he wanted to discuss education exchanges?

PC: No, we met for breakfast as a matter of fact for this one, I think the night before he had had some supper with Dr. Brzezinski and his family.

JC: I went onto Google and typed-in ‘Jimmy Carter’ and ‘Deng Xiaoping’ and saw all of these pictures. What was unusual was the level of physical intimacy that the two of you shared. Pictures of you holding hands, clasping hands…

PC: And embracing. That’s right, it was a warm relationship between me and Deng Xiaoping, and also between Mrs. Deng Xiaoping and my wife, Rosalynn. Even between Deng Xiaoping and my daughter Amy who was then only about 12 years old. I think all over America, the reason that the new relationship between our two countries was accepted by the American people, which was quite a change by the way, was because of the effusive friendship that Deng Xiaoping inspired in his own personal character. He was full of fun and laughter. He was diminutive in stature, but he was a powerful and great man in his spirit and towards America, and towards peace in Asia.

JC: It’s hard to imagine that happening today in the current climate. Do you think that the best is already past for the China-U.S. relationship?

PC: Maybe the most intimate friendship has passed, but I think the political incidences of life show that the most important bilateral relationship on earth, to maintain peace and economic progress, is between the United States and China. I believe that when logic prevails on both sides, that people of the countries and leadership both will realize that this is such an important relationship and it must be preserved. I think the mutual respect, staying out of each other’s private affairs, and not trying to impose our way of life on each other will be honored in the future.

JC: You are unique in having achieved the greatest legacy of any former American president in history. Your Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 is a testament to that and recognized your work as a global moderator. How would you ‘moderate’ the U.S.-China relationship – not just the trade war, but fundamentally, the mindset?

PC: I think the best approach is to do what I had to do when I was President. We had an antagonistic relationship with Japan, and we had recently been at war, and much of our industry in America was moving towards Japan. Not only the manufacturing of clothing, shoes and shirts, but also automobiles and television sets, was moving from American manufacturers to Japanese manufacturers, they were selling it back to us at reasonable prices but to their advantage. We had a lot of Americans leftover from the war who despised Japan and so we formed a relationship where the Prime Minister of Japan and I appointed three, what we called “wise men”. They were distinguished statesmen on each side and those six people would meet in Tokyo, Hawai’i and Washington in a very quiet way. We never gave them any publicity, and they would advise me and the Prime Minister of Japan on the best ways to overcome differences that were inevitably going to arise. I would like to see something like that happen now between the United States and China. Just have three distinguished people on both sides who have a great interest in the preservation of peace and harmony to meet privately and to give their advice to reconcile leaders of both countries. I’m going to write a letter to President Trump and advise him to establish such a relationship, and I’m going to urge Xi Jinping to do the same thing.

JC: You are not just a historic leader, but a contemporary and current leader as well. The Carter Center is innovating a new approach to people, by bringing together the expertise of China and the U.S. to serve health needs for people in Africa, where the health burden is greatest. How is that going to work?

PC: We began these discussions at the forums in 2012 in Beijing, and we followed that up in 2013 here [The Carter Center] and we’ve been going back and forth each year, with a distinguished group of people to meet scholars and statesmen. I think we see it now, that China has emerged on the international scene in a very glorious, aggressive and effective way in dealing with small countries, like in Africa. The United States, particularly The Carter Center, has been doing this for almost the last 40 years. I think that’s an area where we can continue to explore ideas, where the United States and China, and the Chinese and Americans together, can assess the problems or needs for peace or for economic prosperity in the individual African countries, and to not compete with each other but to cooperate with each other. I’ve talked to many African leaders and they don’t want to get involved in an altercation choosing between the United States or China as the main benefactor, but if they knew they could deal with a combination of the United States and China working in harmony, that would be a great relief to some of them.

JC: What do you want young Americans to know about the China that you know? What do you want to tell young Chinese about your country?

PC: Yesterday I met with the international students at Emory University where I’ve taught now for 37 years, and I answered questions from about the 100 foreign students that assembled. About 30% of them were Chinese students. We have more Chinese students in America than we do from any other foreign country, and I think over the last 40 years we’ve had several million of those students come to America to learn about our country. We also have an increasing number going from here to China. Right now, we have about 50,000 American students in Chinese universities learning about the culture on both sides. I think that is a treasure chest of goodwill, of understanding, of comprehension, of the differences between our two countries. But this also shows the facets of both countries that we share: the desire for peace and economic prosperity and the wellbeing of our own citizens, as a first priority, but also the wellbeing of citizens around the world. So, I think that this student exchange is a vital aspect of the future, a guarantee that we in America and the Chinese will live in harmony and peace.

JC: You warn that a “modern Cold War” is not inconceivable, if misperceptions and miscalculations are allowed to continue. You served as U.S. President during the original Cold War: what parallels do you see?

PC: Back in those days, we were struggling against the Soviet Union as a potential military superpower. We were also competing with the Soviet Union in almost every small country around the world, and some of the major ones as well, for influence and for trade benefits and things like that. That’s what we’re trying to avoid at The Carter Center: competition between the United States and China in dealing with individual, foreign countries around the world – all around 200 of them. I would hope that we could see this as a way to bind America and China together, rather than to cause an uncomfortable competition that might lead to reversion into a Cold War. I don’t believe it’s going to happen. I think with a more rational president, on both sides, we’ll see the small groups in both countries that still remembers the Vietnam War and the Korean War where we were on opposite sides, like we had with Japan in World War Two. They’ll see the advantage in overcoming the few dissident, antagonistic groups, and let the vast majority of our people and rational leaders assure the future will see us as friends with mutual respect, not trying to impose our will onto other countries’ culture and political situations, and search aggressively for ways for us to cooperate as friends and help other countries.

JC: President Carter, thank you for this interview. Thank you and Mrs. Carter for transforming the world for the better.

PC: Thank you very much for a good interview. I hope to see you again in the future, it would be a real pleasure.


About "At Large Podcast"

At Large is a new podcast series brought to you by China-US Focus, and presented and produced by writer and broadcaster James Chau. Each week, he unpacks the complex stories shaping China and the United States, covering major events shaping their relationship from technology to trade, and security to foreign policy. At Large is a unique podcast at a unique time in history. Subscribe to 'At Large Podcast' on Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play Music and Stitcher or listen via our website.
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