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Interview with Cui Tiankai

January 18, 2019, Atlanta

Cui Tiankai is the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the United States.

JAMES CHAU: I have many questions for you.


JC: Ambassador Cui, forty years ago, Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter made a decision that changed the world: to establish diplomatic relations between China and United States, essentially merging the interests of over a billion people on different ends of the planet. Forty years later, do you think the two countries have achieved what the original architects had in mind?

AC: I think the answer is a clear “yes”. Both countries – and the world as a whole – have benefited from these four decades. The world has changed for the better. Think about history: back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, we had two “hot” wars in Asia. But since the so-called re-opening of America to China, or re-opening of China to America, Kissinger and Nixon's visits, and the normalization of relations, the Asia-Pacific region is now, on the whole, peaceful and stable. While there are still a couple of hot-spots remaining, it's under control and we're handling them. We are even working together on these issues, like the Korean peninsula. Economically, the Asia-Pacific region is very different from 40 years ago. Now it's one of the main powerhouses of the global economy. I think China and the United States can take a lot of credit, and we are very grateful to President Carter and Mr Deng Xiaoping, for taking that historic decision with great courage and vision.

JC: A few weeks after January 1st, 1979, Deng Xiaoping went to the United States, and said from the South Lawn of the White House: "The world today is far from tranquil. There are not only threats to peace, but the factors making for war are visibly growing." There has been no world war since 1979, and no American soldier has died on a battlefield in East Asia since 1979. Do you think that the U.S.-China relationship is a direct contributor to that peace?

AC: Yes, of course, especially for the Asia-Pacific region. Forty years ago, it was hard to imagine we could achieve overall peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, but now this is the reality. Sometimes people take it for granted.

JC: When Deng Xiaoping was in the United States, he visited the Johnson Space Center, where he climbed into the lunar rover and a spacecraft simulator. The vast majority in China were living in poverty in those days. Fast forward to a few days ago, and China became the first country in the world to explore the far side of the moon. With all the advances in technology and innovation in contemporary China, how do you think China can apply this innovation to benefit humanity?

AC: That's the purpose of China's efforts in developing science and technology. Of course, our goal is to bring a better life to the Chinese people, but we're also ready to contribute more to the progress of all humanity, including through science and technology. The United States is still the leading country in science and most of technology. China is still learning from the U.S. and others, and is trying to catch up, not to replace them, but to cooperate with them for the greater good of the entire mankind.

JC: Some people look at these innovations, the pictures from the far side of the moon, and they see that as a threat. They say that this science and technology is being used to advance China without pulling people up around it. What do you say to those people? You've grown up in China, you represent China, why is it so different to the China people talk about?

AC: The 1.4 billion Chinese people are working very hard for the modernization of the nation and to realize our ‘Two Centenaries’ goals. That includes the efforts of scientists. I don't think there's anybody in China who is planning any invasion of another country, so-called regime changes in another country, or enforcing our system or ideology on others. There is no such plan in China, and no one is doing this in China. Maybe there are people doing all this in other countries.

JC: By default, people are maybe applying their own internal fears to what they think China might be projecting?

AC: If we look at the history of the past half century, or since the end of the Second World War, it is quite clear which countries have invaded others most of the time, which countries have tried regime change all over the world, and which countries are fully engaged in the pursuit of peaceful development. I think that fact is clear.

JC: Which countries are that?

AC: We don't have to name them.

JC: The end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979 were a monumental few weeks for the world, although many people may not know it. On January 1st, 1979 two great nations decided to be real friends and to work together and just a couple weeks before that, Deng Xiaoping in China began the reform and opening up process that changed everything. Those two events are closely interlinked. Opening China's domestic policy meant opening China's outreach to the world as well. Is there an experience from that process that China can share with everybody as a lesson that could work for others?

AC: Actually, the historic changes in China started when Deng Xiaoping came back to power at the end of the Cultural Revolution, although not many people noticed it, beginning with Deng Xiaoping's call to emancipate the mind and seek truth from facts. China re-assessed the global situation and came to the conclusion that there's no imminent danger of a global war, so China should focus on economic development and its modernization drive. That's why we launched reform and opening up. We could not achieve that goal in isolation. We had to build better, stronger relations with our neighbors and with the major powers in the world, like the United States. If you look at the diplomatic schedule of Deng Xiaoping in those months, he visited our neighbors – Japan, Singapore, Malaysia – before the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, the conference where China took the decision for reform and opening up. At the same time, negotiations were going on between China and United States to normalize relations. The Joint Communique was published two days before the party plenum made the decision of reform and opening up. Shortly after that, in late January 1979, Deng Xiaoping came to the United States for his nine-day visit, which was unusually long but a very fruitful and very historic visit. So I think all this was part of a, if I may borrow the term, "grand strategy" for China to really launch its modernization drive to focus on economic development and contribute more to global peace and stability by starting a new relationship with the United States.

JC: You mention the nine-day visit to the United States. I spoke to President Carter, who said that when he extended the invitation, he received an answer in twenty four hours, which was an indicator of the quick but also strong decisions that Deng was able to make. I know you remember that period yourself because Deng was a sensation as the first Chinese leader in a long time that people had a chance to see for themselves. As an ordinary Chinese yourself at that time in Shanghai, what do you think Deng's visit to the United States did for young Chinese?

AC: A great deal. First of all, it opened up great opportunities for the young people in China to pursue their studies to work for a better future. Every time I meet with President Carter, he likes to tell me the story of how he got a call in the middle of the night from his son's advisor in Beijing, who said Deng Xiaoping wanted to send students to the United States. President Carter said they're absolutely welcome. So, this was a result of the decision to talk. I personally benefited from the decision some years later, when I came to the United States to pursue my graduate studies. Without Deng Xiaoping's visit and the decision he took with President Carter to open the doors for student exchange, I would not have had the opportunity to come here.

JC: You had an incredible start to your career, working at the United Nations to engage with the international community. What does globalization mean to you?

AC: Globalization is a fact of life. In today's world, people are more connected. It doesn't matter whether you’re in the U.S., China, or Africa, you can get connected instantly. The flow of information is greater and more powerful than ever before. The exchange of people, the flow of goods and services, and almost everything is globalizing. This is mainly driven by the advancement of science and technology and by economic imperatives. We can’t really reverse the trend. But we have to be very careful about how the benefits are shared equitably and how we can achieve an inclusive, open, and mutually beneficial process of globalization. This has been a challenge over the last few years for the international community.

JC: Mohammad Yunus, the pioneer of microfinance, has spoken about this as well, saying that China has managed to emulate the success of the traditional powers in its own economy, but wouldn't want to copy the failings – social inequity and the big gaps between the rich and the poor. China managed to find a solution for poverty, and if China can do it on a scale of hundreds of millions of people, surely that means it’s possible anywhere? What's a solution for inequity and the injustices that come out of being poor, not having a job, having to pull your children out of school? How do you solve that gap in society?

AC: It’s important to make sure that people have access to these opportunities. If poor kids have access to good education, they can change their lives, they can make their own contribution to society. For groups of people who are more vulnerable than other – people with disabilities, the elderly, etc. – it is our duty to take good care of them. The government has to adopt policies that will take care of the needs of these vulnerable people, so the benefits of globalization and of technological progress are more equitably shared.

JC: You've talked about the progress of technology and how we're all reliant on it, and how that's driving a new kind of globalization, and you've talked about Deng Xiaoping seeking the truth. Is it now very complex and difficult to establish the "truth" in a world of technology, where there's fake news and a rapid spread of information that can't always be controlled?

AC: People are still learning how to act and behave responsibly in this information age. Now, everybody is free to receive information or to send out information to try to influence others. There are cases of so-called "fake news" every now and then, and sometimes it's very difficult for individuals to distinguish it. Governments, institutions, and society need to work out rules and codes of conduct for people to behave responsibly in this information age.

JC: In a way that's decent and respectful of one another?

AC: Yes, yes.

JC: I want to return a bit now to the China-U.S. conversation. Jimmy Carter credits China and the U.S. for significantly securing global peace and for driving and generating global prosperity. But he says that the relationship is in jeopardy, and that if misperceptions and miscalculations are allowed to continue, these two countries could get in a "modern Cold War". Do you agree?

AC: There may be people out there with real intention to initiate a new Cold War between China and the United States. We have to guard against these attempts. But at the same time, the growing common interests between the two countries are clear. If we can really focus on the growing common interests and mutual needs between the two countries, I think it is quite clear that we should cooperate, rather than start a Cold War against each other.

JC: One of the important developments of the past year is the trade war between the two countries. Do you think that this event is going to permanently alter the 40-year relationship? Will China look elsewhere for other partners, or to expand its existing partnerships?

AC: China and the United States are the two largest economies in the world, and a trade war will hurt both countries and probably the global economy. The consequences of the trade disputes of the last couple years are already felt, not only in the two countries but globally. That's why there's widespread concern about the continuation of the dispute without a clear solution in sight. We should speed up our work to conclude the current round of consultations to find practical, effective, and mutually beneficial solutions to the existing issues. Of course if we solve the existing issues, new things might come up, but we have always handled these things in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit.

JC: Obviously, you travel the world, and you take in different opinions. What would you want Americans to know about China and the Chinese people?

AC: I hope the American people can have better knowledge of the real China, not the China sometimes reported in the media here, not the China that some of the so-called “strategists” are writing about. That's not the real China. Some people are trying to demonize China. What they are talking about, what they are imposing on the American people, is not the reality in China. I hope, and I think part of my job here is, to facilitate better mutual understanding between the two countries.

JC: If someone wants to learn about China, and to acquire a serious understanding of the country, how do you suggest they go about it? What's the first step?

AC: There are a lot of good books to read. If they're interested in history, they could certainly start with some reading of Chinese history, that would certainly help. If they could actually visit China, and see for themselves, seeing is really believing. It would be most convincing for people to go there and see what the Chinese are doing every day, what their aspirations are, what the country's goals are. Go there and try to see what is happening, talk to the Chinese people, listen to them, see the evolving China story. A lot of misunderstanding will be gone.

JC: These are two countries that are very different in some aspects-- language, culture, their beginnings, their systems of governance. Do you think that there is the capacity in the future for America to say, “Yes, we have the number two economy not so far behind us these days, we can give it a bit of space and we can lead together”? Is there capacity to do that?

AC: I think the Chinese people have every right to seek a better life. Nobody can deprive us of this inalienable right. So, whether others are happy or not, China will continue to develop peacefully. The Chinese people will continue to work hard for a better life. But at the same time, China's development is not, and has not been, and will not be, at the expense of anybody else. China's development enables China to contribute more to global economic growth and global peace and stability. For instance, as of 2019, China is the second largest contributor to the United Nations’ regular budget and peace-keeping expenses. The United States is still the largest contributor, but we are taking up greater international responsibility. At the same time, I don't think it is possible for China and the United States to become identical at any time in the future. Why should we have a world where all countries are identical to each other? This would be a very dull world. We have to respect and make best use of the diversity. Because China has a different culture, a much longer history, a different language, this is a kind of attraction to many Americans. And America is also a fascinating place for many Chinese. This will motivate people of both countries to learn more about the other. With such mutual understanding, there will be a stronger friendship. I think this is great news for the world.

JC: I'd like to finish our conversation by returning to the two architects of the China-U.S. relationship. Ambassador, you've said multiple times that people shouldn't lose sight of why this relationship began, that it was in pursuit of global peace and that a certain element of global peace has been directly achieved because of these two countries. And Jimmy Carter said yesterday that this relationship, and the people that represent this relationship, should now go forward and create a new partnership that is based not just on mutual respect, but also based on love. Is that still possible?

AC: International relations, most of the time, is based on common interests. This is certainly the case for China and the United States. Of course, if people from different countries love each other, this is great, but you cannot expect everybody to do that. So, as relations between two great countries, I think it’s important to identify a growing common interest and base the relationship on that common interest.

JC: Ambassador Cui Tiankai, thank you very much.

AC: Thank you. It's a great pleasure talking to you.

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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