It was one of those days when you can remember where you were when you heard something, Barbara Harrison said. “On that day in December 1978, I was standing in my kitchen when I heard on the television news that formal relations were to be re-established between China and the United States. Then President Carter spoke. I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember how happy and excited they made me feel. Many years later (in the 1990s), I met President Carter at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and I was able to tell him personally that I still remembered the day he made the announcement. It was a moment that still sticks in my mind.”
Claire Hirsch recalled that people-to-people friendship was practiced by founding members of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association as a forerunner to the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. “Although USCPFA did not create this momentous event in 1979, we helped to create a climate that made it possible.”
After both countries’ leaders signed the Shanghai Communiqué during President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, we expected that China and the U.S. would soon have open and free relations. We were disappointed when the years dragged on without normalization.
The US-China Peoples Friendship Association (USCPFA) had begun as clusters of people in the U.S. came together in the late 1960s and early 1970s to promote friendship and understanding between the people of the U.S. and China. Although our governments did not officially recognize each other, USCPFA as a nonpolitical organization was able to maintain contact and relationships with people and organizations in China. Few others could do this.
Claire Hirsch, a member of USCPFA’s first delegation to China in late 1972, reported: “We spent five weeks traveling the country, enjoying great hospitality and being impressed by all we learned. We met with old people who talked about the past and young enthusiastic cadre who talked about present accomplishments. We now had the ability to give firsthand reports. When we returned home, we spoke in churches, schools, and community groups to share this information about New China.” To inform the American public, USCPFA published pamphlets and newsletters, established a speakers’ bureau, held press conferences, and reported accurate accounts of China’s development and policies.
From 1972 through 1978, USCPFA organized tours that took 5,000 people to China, to enable them to see China for themselves. Many of these travelers were teachers, who multiplied the effect of the experience in their classrooms. In 1977, USCPFA created its Center for Teaching about China (CTAC) as a distribution point for teaching materials, created by those teachers. In May 1978, USCPFA opened an office (the Center for US-China Relations) in Washington DC, and was honored to have four members of the Liaison Office of the People’s Republic of China attend this opening—their first opportunity to “have a chat.”
In December 1978, the Chinese and U.S. governments announced the impending normalization of relations. In response, USCPFA co-chairpersons Frank Pestana and Unita Blackwell held a press conference and issued a statement, excerpted below:
“The members of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association rejoice in the realization of the goal of normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Now, with this handicap removed, we are free to develop a full program of cultural, artistic, scientific, technological, trade, student, and other exchanges . . . We have never before been able to invite delegations from the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to visit the United States even though they have hosted many American delegations through the USCPFA . . .
“We will continue with the enormous task of bringing information about China to the American people in fulfillment of our primary objective of expanding friendship between our two peoples . . . The achievement of normalization is a historic step in establishing peace and friendship not only between our two peoples and countries, but on a world scale.”
In late January 1979, after normalization, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping made an official visit to the U.S. He was met at the Washington DC airport by about 400 people waving banners and flags. President Jimmy Carter held a state dinner in his honor, followed by a special performance at the Kennedy Center. The two leaders held a series of meetings, and President Carter accepted an invitation to visit China. Deng went on to visit Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle.
The USCPFA and the National Association of Chinese Americans jointly sponsored a gala banquet in Washington DC on January 30. Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping attended and, in his remarks, he said: “Normalization of relations is a common victory for our two peoples—a victory which is inseparable from the many years of work you yourselves have done. I wish to express to you our heartfelt thanks . . . many moving deeds showing Sino-U.S. peoples’ friendship will always live in our memory. Now is the time for us to develop this bond of friendship.”
Barbara Harrison reflects: What did we expect from this new relationship? This announcement signaled an opportunity for more frequent and more open relations between our countries in the future. I have never been disappointed, only pleased, with the results of normalization. Changes in China over the past 30 years have been so vast and so great that no one then could have imagined present-day China. Some of us have been fortunate to see these changes as they developed. Our hope for the future is that our two countries will maintain close relations and good will toward each other.
This article draws on USCPFA archives and recent comments. Frank Pestana was a founder of USCPFA and an untiring worker for US-China relations. Claire Hirsch was an early USCPFA member and continues to work for US-China friendship. Barbara J. Harrison served as USCPFA National President for 14 years (1991-2005) and, as one of her first acts, re-instituted USCPFA’s Washington Seminar on US-China Relations; in 2004, she was honored as Friendship Ambassador by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Barbara Harbin Cobb is an editor of USCPFA’s journal, US-China Review.
This article was first published in a supplement to the Houston Chronicle newspaper on January 1, 2009. The special supplement marks 2009 as the 30th anniversary of the normalization of China-US relations, and was prepared by the PRC Consulate in Houston. You can see the entire supplement with articles and historical photos at article.