Sunday, July 7, 2013

When Deng Xiaoping Came to Seattle

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger get nearly all the credit for the opening to China that culminated with the iconic Nixon-Mao handshake in February, 1972.  But while Nixon may have turned the door knob, the man who swung the door wide open was Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, seven years later.

President Obama’s visit with Premier Xi Jingping earlier last month got me thinking, reading and remembering Deng’s visit to Washington, Atlanta, Houston and Seattle in January and February of 1979 when the promise of 1972 was redeemed by the tiny pragmatist and the comeback kid of the People’s Republic, Deng Xiaoping. 

I worked on Deng’s visit to Seattle, serving on an organizing committee of business and civic leaders, and remember it as a fantastic few weeks of preparation and problem solving.   I was a deputy to my brother Charles, the Mayor of Seattle, who was just then starting the second year of his first term.  We’d had a bumpy first year but were feeling good toward the end of the year, celebrating a Christmas and New Year where we actually had some money to spend on gifts, good food and something other than jug wine.  Most of us had worked for a year on the campaign without pay, considering it more of a crusade than a job, and were largely broke when we took office. 

We were working hard over the holidays, absorbing an incredible, if not fully satisfying year.  We held a staff retreat and did some major planning and reorganizing for 1979.  We started work early on the State of the City speech, a requirement of the City Charter that was somehow overlooked in the madness of the rookie year and we had been embarrassed by the fact that we had failed to give it.  We joked that the second speech would have to be so good that people would forget the first, just like we did.

We had a lot of plans for the first year that got blown off the table when the Panamanian freighter Antonio Chavez ran into the old West Seattle drawbridge in June, sticking it in the up position and closing half a bridge carrying nearly 100,000 cars/day, for six years.  It was our first crisis and a persistent one.  However, by the end of the year, thanks to Senator Warren Magnuson, most of the $200 million for the replacement was in hand and land acquisition and environmental review processes were underway. 

We felt ready for the New Year, excited, wiser and more experienced.  Then, right around the New Year, the Mayor had a call from Washington, DC that he was told to keep quiet about.  Deng Xiaoping was coming to the United States and would, as part of his visit, come to Seattle, likely in early February. 

I learned in that first year that skill at governing was only partly how well you do what you plan to do, but how you handled what you had to do, something thrust on you with little or no warning.  The Deng visit was an example, two months torn from the calendar and a full out sprint.

Stan Barer on the left, and the sneator
Seattle attorney Stan Barer’s life was also getting very busy at that time.  A Walla Walla native and former staffer for Senator Warren Magnuson, he had come home to Washington state to practice law shortly after the Nixon visit to China.  He brought his law firm the considerable expertise that came from the Commerce Committee Magnuson was then chair of.  He also brought the enthusiasm Magnuson had for the great potential of China and his desire to bring China fully into the economic life of the west.  Magnuson, as a young man, served in the Pacific during World War II, championed many issues involving China over the years and didn’t view China in the ideological terms that so many of his colleagues in the Senate did.  Like Deng, he was a pragmatist.  He knew that a resurgent China was good for his country and especially good for the
airplanes, wheat, fresh fruit and technology in his state.  Very soon after Nixon left, Magnuson was leading a United States Senate delegation to China,in 1972, where he met with Zhou Enlai, the second in command, creating a photographic symbol of the new, more human scale relationship with the emerging giant. 

While serving with the the senator, Barer worked on a Magnuson consumer protection initiative for the safety labeling of fireworks, an early export from China to the United States. The Nixon visit had set loose a host of issues that needed to be resolved before trade could be conducted smoothly and many of them came through the Commerce Committee.  Clients wanted Barer to make sure the Chinese got through the maze of consumer protection and other issues they would find in America.  He soon had clients who wanted him to work on many other China-US trade issues.  His timing on the China opening could not have been better.  While working on the fireworks, he became involved in cleaning up the commercial messes left when the communists drove the nationalists off the mainland.  Each country had claims against the other and the Chinese feared that, pending a solution, their ships bringing trade goods would be seized, as then allowed by US law, when they landed in American ports.  In the early years, trade had to be conducted between third parties, not directly between China and the US. 

Barer contemplated the possibility of new legislation to solve the seizure issue, but concluded it would just bring up the old wounds about who lost China and why.  But something had to be done and some tangible progress had to be made in settling the claims on both sides.  Barer started watching a piece of legislation in Congress that had a provision on which a legal interpretation could stand, if approved by the Carter Administration, that would clearly ban the seizure of foreign vessels for claims.  Fortunately, the provision was deeply buried in complicated and technical trade legislation and he watched it roll through the process silently, without serious notice, until it passed.

He also had a shipping company client, New Orleans based Lykes Brothers Shipping, who needed to settle a claim from 1949 that rose from a Chinese fishing vessel that had been struck and sunk by one of the company’s ships.  Lykes needed to resolve that problem before its ships could call on China.

From the beginning of the opening to China, the development of trade had to compete with a host of old and unattended problems from years ago, but also with the brutal political life at the top of the Chinese leadership.  While the Cultural Revolution began five years before the Nixon opening, its madness continued and was still highly disruptive.

Three months after Kissinger’s secret July, 1971 visit to set up the details of the Nixon meeting, Mao’s chosen successor, Lin Biao, attempted a coup and died when his military jet ran out of fuel and crashed in Mongolia as he fled to Russia.  At the same time, The Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing -- Madame Mao -- controlled much of the Chinese media and had set up a relatively independent quasi-government in Shanghai over which the central government asserted little control.  In addition, Mao and Zhou Enlai, the second in command, were frequently sick and unavailable for long periods of time. 

An early victim of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was dubbed a capitalist roader and was, when Nixon arrived, in his third year of exile, working as a pipefitter and taking care of his paraplegic son whose disabilities stemmed from being thrown out a window and beaten by a Red Guard mob.  But Zhou Enlai worked to bring Deng back into government and succeeded, in 1973.  But Zhou had just three years to live and it was a constant struggle to keep Deng in office against the efforts of Mao’s wife, the boss of the Gang of Four. 

Then, in January of 1976, Zhou dies and the power struggle between the Gang of Four, Deng and the Party is in full flower.  Later that year, Jiang appears to have won and Deng is once again thrown from power and she seeks in earnest to become the country’s leader.  Then Mao himself dies in September and the chaos is complete.  September/October, 1976 were pivotal.  On October 6, the army and the party seized control of the mass media and, in a midnight meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, they decide to quickly arrest the leadership of the Gang of Four.  A hurried party congress names Hua Guafeng Premier and the army suppresses a rebellion in Shanghai, the Gang of Four's capitol city.  Deng once again was restored to authority, reinstated as Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee, Vice-Premier of the State Council, Vice-Chairman of the Military Commission and Chief of
the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army.  Now in control of the media, the government told its version of the Gang of Four story to the country on October 14, one of several steps that ended the Cultural Revolution.  When the Gang of Four went to trial, in 1980, the government televised the trial nationally with the scary Jiang Qing taking over her own defense.

Deng’s leadership message was to “seek truth through facts” and pursue the economic opening of socialist modernization.  He strongly opposed political thinking focused only on Mao.  Some called the old way of blindly following Mao as "the two whatevers," the idea that whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao had made and whatever instructions he had given must be followed unswervingly.

Rather, while turning from Mao and toward modernization, he applied his skill at pragmatic messaging to solve the great problem of Mao’s legacy:

“His contributions are primary.  His mistakes are secondary.”

By the time his Boeing 707 aircraft landed in Seattle the evening of February 3, 1979, he was fully in power and would remain so for 19 years. 

Events for Deng’s visit were a tough ticket.  And he made the ticket even tougher when he caught a bad cold.  He went to only three of the formal events planned for him – a luncheon at the Westin Hotel on Sunday, where he briefly spoke through his sniffles, a tour of Boeing’s 747 Plant in Everett and an intimate dinner with business and political leaders at the restaurant Canlis.   The White House protocol office called the Westin before he arrived and said he would require at least one spittoon.  Doubling down, the Westin bought two spittoons, one for his rooms and the other a kind of mobile spittoon that was always nearby. 

He skipped a Boeing Hydrofoil tour of the Seattle Harbor Sunday morning and other marine points of interest.  Boeing was in the throes of a post-Boeing bust effort to expand its business lines and fast boats made up one of the new products.  He also skipped a breakfast meeting with editors and publishers from around the Northwest the Monday morning he left, saying his cold had gotten worse.

He was hell on police overtime.  The Revolutionary Communist Party, a Mao supporting group, hung and burned Deng in effigy several times.  The Young Americans for Freedom demonstrated outside his hotel and elsewhere as did the Native Taiwanese Association. 

Lots of people came by the office with messages they wanted to pass on to the Chinese delegation.  Many were families trying to connect across the 30 year chasm resulting from the fall of China.  I remember talking to one man, Otto Sieber, who, as a ten year old departed China with his mother, a German who taught English and German at China’s Whampoa Military Academy.  The nationalists were fleeing the mainland and she had helped the nationalists during the civil war so, when she found two seats on a nationalist plane headed for Taiwan, she and Otto took them.  Sieber’s Chinese father, a college professor, and two brothers remained behind, thinking he and the boys had nothing to fear.  Since then, Sieber had not heard from anyone.  The letter he gave us asked for help in finding his two brothers, whom Sieber believed to be alive, though he thought his father likely dead.  We gave the letter to our contact in the Deng delegation.

We had asked professor Robert Kapp, a University of Washington teacher with a doctorate in China Studies from Yale to help us with the visit.  One morning we were talking about a gift to the Chinese delegation that would be meaningful and he said something like this:

“These guys want to know how to do things.  They admire getting things done and accomplishment.  They want to do things right.  Why don’t we put together something that shows them how you make things happen in Seattle.  I can’t think of any piece of art or memorabilia that would be more important than showing them how you make your government work.  In their eyes, that would make you unique.”

So, we started collecting materials that showed them how we governed our water, electric and garbage utilities.  How we put together our budgets.  How we planned to replace the bridge that was stuck upright.  How we cleaned our streets.  How our zoning worked – and didn’t.  Stuff poured in from departments and soon we had boxes piling up in our conference room.  We labeled them, I recall three or four big boxes, drove them to the hotel and handed them over with a letter of explanation to the Vice Chairman.

Soon after our boxes were flown off to Beijing, a ship entered the harbor in Shanghai on March 15.  It was the Letitia Lykes, owned by Stan Barer’s client.  It was the first American flagged ship to call on China since 1949.   A month later, the Liu Lin Hai steamed into Puget Sound and set off a celebration, not a seizure.  Barer’s legal opinion, the adoption of the opinion by the Carter Administration and the
obscure legislation he had noticed in 1975, had held.  Soon, the Liu Lin Hai would take on 30,000 tons of Washington state corn and sail for the People’s Republic of China.

Later that Spring, Otto Sieber received a letter from his father, now 82 and living in Manchuria.  After 30 years of being a non-person, an R for rightist stamped on his identity card, he was teaching once more.  The two brothers had died.  One of them drowned trying to rescue his son from an irrigation project and the other, also a drowning victim, but a suicide.  The Cultural Revolution nearly killed his father, and did kill the woman he married after Sieber and his mother left, but like Deng, he struggled and survived.  Sieber was reunited with his father in the fall of 1979.

In Seattle, Deng Xiaoping, one of the few survivors of the Long March then alive called for “a new Long March toward modernization.” 

The new Long March he articulated through his cold in Seattle in 1979 has made China a great nation once again.  Total US – China trade rose from $5 Million dollars the year of Kissinger’s secret visit in 1971 to $5 Billion two years after Deng took power to more than $500 Billion in 2012.

Warren Magnuson would be delighted to know that his home state was providing $8.0 Billion in annual exports to China, an amount that comprises about 7% of total US exports to China and is third among all states behind California and Texas.   

Richard Holbrooke, the assistant US Secretary of State who staffed the effort to recognize China in 1978 and knew Deng well, put him at the highest rung of accomplishment in 1997, the year Deng died, though with one great cloud over it all, the 1989 violence at Tiananmen Square:

“Other than Nelson Mandela, probably, Deng was the most extraordinary living person in the world up to his death," Holbrooke said.  "He did everything he set out to do and made China a great nation again – except for one thing.  He couldn’t manage the transition from a full communist dictatorship to a more open society without tremendous political oppression at the end and this will be a cloud over his otherwise extraordinary accomplishments.”

Selfishly, I have always wondered about the boxes full of reports the earnest planners from Seattle gave them and what person in China, if any, ever read their contents or at least thumbed through them.  Was there a young Deng Xiaoping somewhere, seeking truth through facts, carefully studying and sometimes sharing these documents?  Did they give him an idea or two that helped build a great city? 

Nice Summary of US China Trade, 1971-Present

Richard Holbrooke discusses Deng Xiaoping's legacy with Charley Rose

Trial of Gang of Four, You Tube


  1. Nicely done, Bob. Especially the part about the boxes.

  2. Deng's cold was as a result of smoking Canadian cigarettes given to him by a Canadian at his hotel,he gave her one of his beloved Pandas and she gave him a package of Export Plain,Canada's strongest cigarette.Shortly thereafter Deng came down with a cold.

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