January 29, 1979, President Jimmy Carter, former President Richard Nixon, and Chinese Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping at the White House (Bettman/Corbis).
In April 1990, President Nixon wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping, then the leader of the People’s Republic of China, after the fallout from the events of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square.
This was a personal letter — “solely for China,” Nixon said.
Nixon stressed that contrary to the opinion of some foreign policy experts, the relationship still deserved attention beyond the receding power of the Soviet Union, maintaining its indispensability to peace, stability, and economic prosperity across the Pacific.
The former president said that leaders of both the United States and China should recognize irreconcilable differences (“I am not suggesting that China should move away from Leninism and become a multi-party democracy” ); however he did urge Deng to take steps to rehabilitate China’s reputation and return to its “rightful place as a civilized member of the world community.”
Deng had twice been named Time Magazine‘s “person of the year,” and under his leadership, China had normalized relations with the United States, and vastly improved its economy, doubling the income of its average citizen.
The archetypal realist, Nixon gently counseled Deng to allay concerns about the future of Hong Kong after its return in 1997, and address human rights issues, including the safe release of democracy activist Fang Lizhi from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and issuing amnesty to student demonstrators under detention for their actions in June 1989. China taking “actions internally will enormously benefit it externally, as well as internally,” Nixon believed.
The letter also stressed continual dialog with then President Bush, warning that U.S. Congress — who favored a tougher stance against China — could usurp White House influence in the area of foreign policy.
At the end of the letter, Nixon told Deng that now was the time to “seize the moment,” and make a “big play.”
“I realize that I have been perhaps much too blunt in my comments,” Nixon repented.
“But since I hold no office, I no longer have to be a diplomat!”
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