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1980s-1990s. From grey, Stalinist Beijing in the early 1980s to the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 to China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 to a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, Jeffrey Bader has been deeply involved in nearly all aspects of U.S. policy with China since normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979.
Wondering how to make sense of politics in the People’s Republic of China through reading official media, how the United States negotiated the largest trade agreement with China, how to build international coalitions, how to assess leverage with China, or how to orchestrate a presidential visit to Beijing -- Ambassador Bader was involved with and at the center of nearly every major turning point in U.S.-China relations over the past four decades. He shares key insights into the inner workings both of the U.S. government and the Chinese Communist Party on everything from security issues, sanctions, Tibet and Xinjiang, and market access to arms sales and the media. Bader offers a piece of advice for U.S. officials on drafting joint statements: "Don't get lazy."
James Green: Welcome to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University.
This podcast series explores diplomacy and dialogue between China and the United States during the four decades since normalization of relations in 1979. We'll hear from former ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, and White House advisors who will share how they shaped the course of the most complex relationship in international diplomacy today.
I'm your host, James Green.
Today on the podcast, we talk with Ambassador Jeffrey Bader.
From his first tour in grey drab Beijing in 1981 to arriving with President Obama on Air Force One three decades later as a Special Assistant to the President, Jeff Bader has been involved in nearly every major event in U.S.-China diplomatic relations. Bader is that rare career official able to operate in both the minutiae of a state visit to the broader thinking needed to address enduring U.S. security concerns; he is also an official who jumped the unspoken barrier between career employees and political appointees, experienced at briefing cabinet secretaries and presidents on a course of action on how to deal with China.
Given Bader's long involvement in making and executing U.S. policy towards and with China, we've broken up our discussion into two episodes to capture the richness of his experience.
In this first conversation, Bader begins with the earlier part of his career at the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the National Security Council. He talks with me about the pivot points in U.S.-China relations from the 1980s and 1990s. Towards the end of that period, Bader was deeply involved with President Clinton's groundbreaking ten-day visit to China in 1998. Here's a clip of President Clinton at a remarkable call-in radio show in Shanghai during that visit:
Audio in Chinese: 总统先生，你好！zongtong xiansheng, nihao! (Hello, Mr. President!)
Bill Clinton: "What we're trying to do in America is say, 'ok China should be in the World Trade Organization, but it has to be a commercially realistic set of understandings when you have memberships, and yet we owe you the right to a reasonable period of transitions as you change your economy. I think we’ll get there. I think we’ll reach an agreement before long.”
James Green: But in addition to explaining the importance of summitry and communiques, Bader talks with me about using different levers of the U.S. government to address some of the most nettlesome issues in the U.S.-China relationship: human rights, Tibet, security, technology. That is, he talks through both the why and the how of U.S. diplomacy during the first two decades of his U.S. Government career. And now, Ambassador Jeffrey Bader:
I wanted to start early on in your career. We'll get to your time as the staff assistant to the East Asia Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary, but I just want to start at your first posting after joining the Foreign Service in Beijing and what it was like to roll off the plane, go to Beijing's old capital airport and get into the Embassy, the old Embassy. What was it like to kind of be in China in the 1980s?
Jeff Bader: In 1981, when I first arrived there, it was a pretty backward place. It was gray, it was basically a Stalinist city. About four million bikes and four million cyclists all wearing the same blue outfits. No restaurants in the entire city, no private restaurants. The only places you could eat were in the old hotels which had dining room staff by sullen, sullen waiters. No commercial areas. No street life. People who transparently were not happy, and who had no interests in interacting with foreigners because it could get them in trouble.
So, I was there from 1981 to 1983 and it was a pretty gray existence. People in the Embassy were all stuck in their compounds and mostly interacted with each other. Your interaction with the Chinese was very structured and stilted.
James Green: And what was your job at the time at the Embassy?
Jeff Bader: I was in the political section covering internal affairs. And since you couldn't talk to an awful lot of people, that meant mainly reading the media, which you could have done perfectly well back in Washington or in Rosslyn, Virginia.
James Green: And China at that time was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping was launching reforms. Did you get a sense of excitement? It sounds like it was kind of gray and drab and the excitement didn't come until kind of the mid-'80s or the late-'80s.
Jeff Bader: I think that's exactly right. I went back in 1987 when I was at the China Desk and the place was completely transformed between 1983 and 1987. Beijing was beginning to be a vibrant city with a commercial life and a street life and people who interacted with foreigners. So, I think the mid-'80s is when the Deng Xiaoping reforms really began affecting the physical landscape and the psychology of Chinese.
I mean, my tour was not completely gray. You know, I'd hop on a train and then go off to the provinces, went off to Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu and Xinjiang and Yunnan in southern China and Shanghai, and pretty much every place was somewhat more lively than in the capital. Shanghai was still Old Shanghai and it was always a more commercial place than Beijing. So, you got a little glimpse of what China had been and what China could be when you got outside the capital. The capital was quite oppressive.
James Green: Hmm. And at that time who was Ambassador then?
Jeff Bader: The ambassador was Art Hummel. He arrived some months after I got there. Chas Freeman was the chargé d'affaires until Art Hummel arrived. I can't remember if it was late '81 or early '82. Probably late '81.
James Green: And so, you had mentioned difficulty talking to average Chinese people. Did you have much interaction with the Foreign Ministry?
Jeff Bader: Well, since I was handling internal political affairs, not that much. We had people who handled external, couple of people, who'd interact with the Foreign Ministry, but again, it was pretty perfunctory. They'd go in at a low level in the Foreign Ministry and they'd deliver an instructed démarche from Washington and read talking points and the Foreign Ministry people would read talking points back and that was that. There was no serious interaction-
James Green: Hmm.
Jeff Bader: At that level. At the senior levels, I'd say at the chargé level, the political council level, there was somewhat more candid interaction with Chinese counterparts, although it was still very constrained.
James Green: And so, then you came back to Washington and had a series of jobs. I wanted to move into asking you about your role as Deputy Director I think of the China Desk during the Tiananmen crackdown. I was re-reading Patrick Tyler's book, in which you're involved in preparing the U.S. side to figure out what's happening. But could you just talk a little bit about the run up to it, and what was going on in 1989 and what you at the China Desk were doing during that time?
Jeff Bader: Well, it all began, you'll recall, April 15th of 1989 when Hu Yaobang died. And demonstrators began to appear in Tiananmen to celebrate his life and it was a very volatile time in Beijing. You had the meeting of the Asia Development Bank coming up, which was a big deal in Beijing at the time; you had Mikhail Gorbachev's planned visit in early to mid-May, mid-May, which was the first time a Soviet leader had been to Beijing since what, Kosygin met Zhou Enlai at the airport like 25 years earlier.
And there had been major demonstrations in major in big Chinese cities just two years earlier that led to Hu Yaobang's ouster. So, the place was I won't say a tinderbox but was fragile, let’s say. We'd just had President George Bush's visit early in the year, February, right after he took office, which ended badly because of an episode involving the banquet that the Americans hosted for the Chinese in which the U.S. invited, leading dissidents, in particular Fang Lizhi, and the Chinese blocked their presence. It blew up in the media, the trip was generally considered a failure. And dissidents were more visible, more active, certainly than they are now.
So, the place was ripe for problems. And the demonstrations built up over the course of April and May. From our position at the China Desk, all we could do was watch and analyze. We had the intelligence and research bureau at the State Department which also was working in parallel with us in analyzing what was going on. And I don't think there were significant differences in perception of what was happening.
Somewhere around mid-May, I think around the time of the Gorbachev visit, it became clear to people in Washington that there was what the Chinese used to call a “two-lined struggle” going on in Beijing that was not apparent before that. The leadership gave the appearance of unity. But then that cracked open.
James Green: And by two-lined struggle, you mean there was a split in the leadership that had different views on what to do with these demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and around the country?
Jeff Bader: That's right, split in the leadership. And that became apparent, I guess in particular when, I think it was General Secretary Zhao Ziyang spoke to Gorbachev during the visit and in essence said, "I'm not in charge here. That guy over there, Deng Xiaoping, is in charge." A kind of a shocking thing for a Chinese leader to say on a camera. And if you've read the newspapers at the time you would read one set of columns sympathetic to the demonstrators and another set of columns talking about the need for order and stability. So, you knew that things were not settled.
James Green: And at that time the official media was one good way to see what the leadership was thinking. Different leaders had different access to different media outlets.
Jeff Bader: Yeah, that wasn't really settled until that May 18th-May 19th when martial law was declared. And then people had a much sharper understanding of what had been going on, that Zhao Ziyang had largely been fighting a kind of one-man battle within the leadership against Deng, against Li Peng, the Premier, against Yang Shangkun, who was the senior military leader at the time. And with a declaration of martial law, Zhao was ousted, and the military began forays towards downtown to try to restore order but did them in a somewhat gingerly and half-hearted fashion. So-
James Green: And what did you see your guys' role at the State Department and kind of the Embassy? What were watching and I know I spoke to Dave Shear, he was out on the street kind of talking to people. How did you see your role back at main State?
Jeff Bader: From the Washington end it was to try to at that point, to try to maintain the relationship, which was still regarded as clearly important for strategic reasons not least because the Cold War was not entirely over. And to urge moderation on the Chinese leadership in response to what was going on.
There was not an absolutely clear sense of what the outcome was going to be. In much of May I think there was a general sentiment that once martial law was declared it was pretty obvious what the outcome was gonna be. And I think there was, at the China Desk, there was great anxiety, in the period from May 20 to May 30, when demonstrations redoubled, and they put up this goddess of democracy, a statue based on the Statue of Liberty, which many of us knew was just going to be an absolute provocation to the leadership and lead to violent repression.
James Green: Why do you say it was a provocation to the Chinese leadership?
Jeff Bader: Because it would be seen as foreign interference. This was not the statue of Confucius, okay. It was not a Chinese model that was being invoked. It was a foreign model. And given the paranoia of the Chinese leadership generally about foreign interference, this was a real poke in the eye. And watching the American media and American commentariat get caught up in the enthusiasm of what was going on, was unsettling, because I felt that demonstrators were being baited into taking more and more extreme positions and they were going to have to pay the price for what happened, not journalists in the United States.
James Green: Do you think your time- just harkening back to, you said in the early ‘80s it was very gray. Do you think your then-decade long time working in China gave you a perspective that journalists who had showed up for the Gorbachev summit kind of didn't have in understanding where China had come from and where it could kind of go back to?
Jeff Bader: Well, I think you remember CNN's coverage, Mike Chinoy with Bette Bow-Lord and, I think Mike's a great journalist and that his coverage set the standard for how CNN covers crises. It was the first time it had been done. But the coverage had kind of a celebratory quality to it more than it had an analytic quality to it. And I think others duplicated that kind of coverage. I remember lots of coverage emphasizing the youth and vigor of the demonstrators, and old, feeble leaders, with the implication that they were one step away from the grave and that they'd be pushed out. I think that was a complete misreading of the nature and determination of the Communist Party and its leadership to hang onto power. And their feeling about stability, the importance of stability.
So, I felt that this was all occurring in the context of what was going on in Eastern Europe with revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe developing, and people were depicting this as a struggle of freedom versus oppression with an inevitable outcome. Well, the inevitable outcome was not the way people were depicting it because people did not understand the strength of the Communist Party. And the absence of any serious organized opposition, or institutional framework for an opposition in China, unlike let's say Poland with Solidarity.
So, I think many of us watched it with mounting unease and alarm. When the PLA moved with the violence that it did on June 3rd, June 4th, I won't say it was a shock but it was somewhat surprising in a sense that you'll recall of course that 1986-'87, Deng had handled the demonstrations, which were massive, much more carefully. And the demonstrations had basically dissipated without the need for violent repression. So, there was that precedent only two and a half years earlier, which one hoped might stand. But for various reasons, it did not.
James Green: Could I ask, you had a very nice introduction to Doug Paal's a couple years ago at Brookings in which he spoke, in which he talked about your daily interactions with him and he was a senior director at the White House at the time and you had a president who had this unusual history with China.
Jeff Bader: Yep.
James Green: Could you just talk a little bit about what the kind of requests were and the interaction between the White House and State at that time?
Jeff Bader: Well, it was very well coordinated. I mean, I used to talk to Doug Paal every day. He was Senior Director at National Security Council and the nice thing about Doug's position there was that he had a National Security Advisor in Brent Scowcroft who was intensely focused on China and Doug could get to Brent Scowcroft in a few minutes notice to get his attention.
So, you could get regular guidance and regular feedback, from the highest levels of the U.S. government. You weren't just swimming around in the dark, which was not often the case at the State Department. Often at the State Department you don't know what's going on above you 'cause the bureaucracy on the State side is complex. But if you've got that direct channel to the National Security Advisor, makes a big difference.
Both President Bush and Scowcroft were determined not to let the relationship collapse. They understood that after Tiananmen, the U.S. had to react and I remember there was a meeting at the State Department, I think this was June 4th. We met and I can't remember who chaired, it may have been Dick Solomon chairing it. I don't recall. It was a big meeting of all the agencies, of all the bureaus at the State Department talking about the reaction and how we should react.
And there was a pretty rapid consensus that we needed to suspend all exchanges, senior level exchanges, with the Chinese. And that we had to suspend all government-funded assistance to China not that there was exactly a big aid program, but there was a foreign military sales program with four projects going on with the Chinese and there were other dribs and drabs from different agencies funding good government programs and business programs and the like. Those two were agreed upon pretty quickly.
Then there was a discussion about Most Favored Nation status, which, you'll recall, was on a year to year basis then, it required an annual waiver to continue Most Favored Nation status for China until the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of the Trade Act. Discussion was very brief. There was a consensus almost instantly that MFN had to be continued. I don't remember a dissenting voice on that.
James Green: Why? What was the thinking?
Jeff Bader: The thinking was that we could not cut off all the major ties of engagements and interaction with China. China was still only a few years into its opening and reform. The chances of China going back to an earlier era of autarky, xenophobia, and, totalitarianism was not dismissed as trivial. And in addition, there were obvious U.S. national interests in growing trade with China. There were American stakeholders who had interests. And I think there was an immediate understanding that, if we did it, then others would not follow. So, we would just be cutting off our noses to spite our face.
In fact, the decision on no further high-level exchanges and cutting off foreign assistance, that was followed almost immediately by the Europeans and the Japanese and the Australians, Canadians, there was a well-founded decision and it got multilateral support. MFN suspension would not have.
I was Acting Director of the China Desk at the time and I was assigned the task of writing a memo to the president, saying, "Here's what we recommend," going through the nine or ten different programs to be continued or suspended. And I wrote it in an hour or two based on the meeting. Sent it over to the White House via the seventh floor of the State Department-
James Green: I thought you were gonna say, "Horse and carriage," in those days before email, but you know (laughs)-
Jeff Bader: Yeah, that's right. And the president agreed to all of the recommendations within a day. So, that basically set our course for the next few years.
James Green: Can I ask one question, a kind of broader one, on weighing kind of public versus private messaging? You mentioned the National Security Advisor, General Scowcroft, who went to Beijing shortly after this-
Jeff Bader: Mm-hmm (affirmative), right.
James Green: And then made a second trip later in the year.
Jeff Bader: Right.
James Green: How did you all kind of weigh what should be done public and private in this instance but then maybe even just a little more broadly on kind of interacting with Chinese officials, how do you decide this is an issue that really we should have them behind closed doors, and this is something that we want to have this spokesman say or the president or some other official kind of thing?
Jeff Bader: Well, the general precept was, it's an internal affair in China, not so much that we respected the way they'd handled it, not in the least. But there's not much if anything an outsider can do about it. We could beat our chests all we wanted about what they should do, but it wasn't going to make a damn bit of impact on their behavior. Okay? And that hasn't changed, it's probably gotten I'd say even more so as our leverage with China has diminished down through the years.
So, lecturing the Chinese or conditioning their internal behavior on our governance preferences was understood to make very little sense.
Second was a recognition that something dreadful had occurred in China, that the positive hopes about the political evolution we'd seen in China in the middle to late '80s was now terminated or suspended. And that, if I may say, was not at all naïve. The leaders of China at the time were Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, both of whom were committed not only to economic reform but to political reform broadly defined, meaning changes in China's governance, which would have made for a better China. There are specific instances of the programs of each which people would recognize as liberalizing.
In the case of Zhao Ziyang, for example, the separation of party and state, which is something that regrettably has recently been reversed, in a more ideological time. Zhao was moving things in the opposite direction.
In the case of Hu Yaobang, the famous trip to Tibet, in which he basically scolded the hierarchy for its campaign of Sinicization of Tibet and called for more Tibetan leaders, ethnic Tibetans to run Tibet, and a general disposition towards a more liberal political system.
So, this was not a vain hope at the time. This was reality. Okay? And then 1989 meant that that reality no longer held because Deng had decisively turned against the direction that Hu and Zhao were taking China. So that obviously caused reflection.
But I think there was still a general recognition that what we cared about above all was China's international behavior. The issue that had preoccupied me in my three years at the China Desk, from 1987 to 1990, number one issue was proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Because China from an earlier era, from the Mao era, had been hostile to the doctrine of non-proliferation. China's view had been the more nuclear weapons and the more weapons of mass destruction delivery systems out there the better.
China had given Pakistan the blueprints for making nuclear weapons. China was in touch with every rogue regime in the Middle East, providing at a minimum technologies and entire systems for medium-range ballistic missiles. This was our number one issue at the time, on trying to alter Chinese behavior on proliferation, which was a global threat.
James Green: And a threat to the United States.
Jeff Bader: And a threat to the United States. Threat to our allies. Threat to a global system since President Kennedy, which was premised on the notion that you wanted to limit the availability to all regimes, in particular bad regimes, of these kinds of weapons. And this was an incremental process with the Chinese where you had to educate them, you had to give them incentives and disincentives and you had to kind of grab them by the neck and change their whole way of approaching the issue.
And we put tremendous effort into it. Every high-level visitor who went to China in the late Reagan years and the early Bush years, this was top of the agenda. Their potential arm sales or actual sales to Iran, to Iraq, to Libya, to Pakistan. And I will say that we were highly successful. China's behavior changed incrementally, but basically they stopped delivering entire systems moderately quickly, just a couple of years, and then the fight over the succeeding years was by and large over technology: whether this item or that item was primarily risky and this or that missile system, or was designed for other purposes, and we fought those kind of by trench warfare subsequently. But that was the number one issue.
James Green: Could I move forward to the Taiwan Strait Crisis, '95-'96? But before getting to that time, I just wanted you to set the table with the 1982 communique. I was very impressed one of the times I was working with you, I think it was at the NSC, and some Taiwan issue came up and you had kept the joint communiques and the Taiwan's Relations Act in a drawer in your desk that you could refer to at will, as an almost religious, scholarly way to say, "Okay, what does it actually say in that?" But could you just set the table on the 1982 communique and what you recall from that one, and then we can talk a little bit about the Taiwan Strait Crisis and what precipitated it and what U.S. role was?
Jeff Bader: Well, the '82 communique was a consequence of the failure of normalization to settle the arms sale question. Okay? When the U.S. normalized with China in 1978-'79, the last act of Ambassador Woodcock in cementing the deal in December of '78 was to go in on instructions to see Deng Xiaoping and the acting foreign minister and tell them we intended to continue selling arms to Taiwan. And Deng Xiaoping's response was, "This is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable." But this is one thing you could do with the Chinese. They could say something was completely unacceptable and then the next sentence is, "We will go ahead with normalization." Okay? So, the decision was made to proceed with normalization, although the Chinese made clear this was completely unacceptable.
So, what happened after normalization was the Chinese immediately reminded the Carter administration this was unacceptable and started demanding that this issue be reopened.
James Green: And the US position at that time, just to be clear, was we have long-standing ties to the people of Taiwan and-
Jeff Bader: We're gonna continue to sell arms to Taiwan. We still had a defense treaty with Taiwan for about a year at least, so certainly we were gonna sell them for another year. And you're going step by step. We weren't making statements as a government beyond the future. The first year of sales were actually quite high; they were extraordinarily high.
And then when President Reagan came in in 1981, he was at the outset determined to sell advanced fighter aircraft to Taiwan and he was a very vocal critic of the decision to normalize with PRC and break relations with Taiwan. The Chinese reacted very harshly to that and made threats to downgrade relations with the U.S. Exactly what those threats mean, expel the ambassador, wasn't clear, something like that.
So, when negotiations ensued in '81-'82, resulting in the '82 communique, which had I would call ambiguous language about the future of arms sales. Since I no longer keep it in my desk drawer, I can't recite it literally, but the gist of it was that we would in the future not increase, in quantity or quality, the arms sold to Taiwan above the several years surrounding normalization period, and that over time, the arms sale issue would be resolved.
So, an assumption built into the language that over a long period of time, arms sales would fade away. But it wasn't spelled out with contract-like precision. And what the Chinese did in the communique was to talk about neither country will seek hegemony or words to that effect. I didn't think very much of the communique, candidly. I'm not a great admirer of the 1982 communique. I think it just set us up for further disputes with the Chinese over what was acceptable, what was unacceptable, in arms sales to Taiwan.
At the time I understand, China was regarded as a critical Cold War partner and that's how Secretary Haig certainly viewed China and how he persuaded President Reagan to pursue this agreement.
James Green: So, in 1995, the Taiwan president comes to the United States, Li Denghui, to his alma mater and gives a speech. I think it's fair to say the Communists in Beijing were not particularly happy about that. At that time, you were at main State-
Jeff Bader: I was in Hong Kong as Deputy Counsel General Consul General. I got back in the summer of 1995, after the Li Denghui visit.
James Green: And so, then the fallout from the Li Denghui-
Jeff Bader: Yes, indeed.
James Green: Welcome, welcome back to Washington.
Jeff Bader: Yeah.
James Green: What did you see your role as in trying to deal with this fall out from the Li Denghui visit?
Jeff Bader: I think there was a broad recognition throughout the administration that the Li Denghui visit had been a mistake. Broad. Okay? Up to the level of the Secretary of State, who offered, a statement of regret to his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen. The leadership in the State Department had been passive in the process of approving Li's visit. It was imposed by Bill Clinton, President Clinton, maybe with a few brief consultations with a few key senators who urged him to do it. And Li was given a visa without regard to the advice of key people in the State Department, of whom I'd mention particularly Alan Romberg, Don Kaiser, and Kent Wiedemann, who were sort of one step down below the assistant secretary level, all of whom were strongly opposed to the visit and who wrote memos to the Secretary of State opposing it.
James Green: And they were opposed because they thought it was an unnecessarily gratuitous provocation to Beijing and didn't help our strategic relationship with Taiwan? What was the argument?
Jeff Bader: There's an element of theology involved here. There had not been a visit by a senior Taiwan leader since the end of the diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. And, as we've just discussed, the Chinese are very focused on precedent. Suddenly for the first time in sixteen years you have the President of Taiwan appearing in the United States, a president of Taiwan who had been a lifelong advocate of independence for Taiwan, this is a challenge from the PRC’s point of view.
I don't think anyone doubted that the Chinese would be negative. The question was: how sharp would be the reaction? And the people who I just mentioned said it's gonna be very sharp. Whereas the senior people who approved it said, "Ah, we can handle this." Okay? Turns out the people who were familiar with China who were sending up the warning flares were right.
And you remember what the Chinese did? In fact, they began testing some missiles, off the coast of Taiwan. They had a series of missile exercises in 1995-'96 that were very threatening and the whole relationship between the U.S. and China seemed to be on the line.
Basically, the challenge for the State Department was to provide the Chinese some comfort that this was not going to be a recurring phenomenon. But at the same time, not provide an assurance that the U.S. would never do anything of this kind again because essentially it was a sovereign right for the U.S. to receive visitors and to issue visas. It was something we could not delegate to the Chinese. So, to find a process and language that would basically tell the Chinese, "Relax, this is not a precedent. You are not likely to see more of this kind of thing." But not provide assurances.
James Green: I wanted to ask: who was the ambassador at the time and was that someone who you used to convey messages? You had said that these messages had been conveyed to the PRC. What was the mechanism that that was done through?
Jeff Bader: Mostly via visitors to Beijing, visitors to Washington. We had no ambassador at the time. Ambassador Roy, Stape Roy had left and the Chinese refused to give agreement, or they delayed giving agreement, to a successor who was Jim Sasser, former senator from Tennessee. So, Sasser was just sitting around in Washington, waiting. And then the Chinese weren't giving a go ahead, because of their anger over the Li Denghui visit.
There was a major visit by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff to Beijing in February of 1996, when we had clear indications of what China intended in terms of missile exercises and during that visit he conveyed clear warnings that military action against Taiwan would trigger the Taiwan Relations Act, that there would be a U.S. response. I felt that over the preceding months that had not been conveyed clearly enough. Tarnoff did that.
James Green: That there would be consequences, that the U.S. would have to respond?
Jeff Bader: Yeah, there would be military consequences of Chinese military action against Taiwan. I felt the language, as I say, was couched in the Taiwan Relations Act, which doesn't explicitly say the U.S. is going to send forces. But it's implicit.
And there was a visit by Liu Huaqiu, who was the director of the PRC Foreign Affairs Office for the Party and vice minister to Washington, which came in the middle of the PRC exercises, and there was a dinner with Secretary of State Christopher, Secretary of Defense [Perry] and others, where particularly Secretary Perry was extremely direct in saying what the consequences would be if this kind of activity escalated.
And it was in the wake of that visit that the deployment of the carriers occurred. So, it was all orchestrated. And we also canceled the visit by the Chinese Defense Minister. He was supposed to come two or three days later but canceled that visit. So, the signaling was both overt and private and it was done without an ambassador.
James Green: Can we move to your time at the White House and the visits of Jiang Zimen to the United States and then President Clinton? I had the chance to work with you then and I remember this vividly. it must have been before President Clinton went in '98, you sent me over, it was like my third day working with you and I was still trying to find out kind of how to get to the West Wing. You said, "Go to the West Wing. Jim Steinberg, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor, is having this meeting to prepare for President Clinton's trip."
Jeff Bader: I can't believe I did this to you but go ahead.
James Green: (laughs) I said, "Oh, sure, of course. Yes. As soon as I can find out how to get there." And so, I don't think I had a hard pass at the time. I don't remember how I got in. So, someone got me at the door and brought me to the meeting and it was mostly a discussion of what should happen. But what stuck in my mind was how much focus there was on the media aspect of it of kind of what would be presented. And that was the first visit of a U.S. president since the Tiananmen Square crackdown and there was reviewing of the troops in Tiananmen Square. And so, these were visual issues that were important and kind of messaging issues that were important.
Jeff Bader: Yep. Right.
James Green: Could you talk a little bit about how you saw, you were then at that point at the White House as the China Director, how you saw Jiang Zimen's visit? And why presidential visits are even important and in these sorts of interactions?
Jeff Bader: Well, presidential visits send a public message to the publics on both sides that the relationship has mutual benefits and some normalcy to it. Particularly in the wake of Tiananmen, there hadn't had a visit in eight years when Jiang came in 1997. So, that was important message that people understood that the U.S.-China relationship was resuming. There's also visits at that level that were also opportunities to close on big issues that the bureaucracies were not able to resolve that had to be kicked up to the presidential level.
So, I think those are two equally important purposes and that's how the Jiang Zimen visit was conceived, and the Clinton visit even more so when Clinton went a year later to Beijing and was in China for ten days, five cities. But you're absolutely right. I mean, to someone who's been buried in the bowels of the bureaucracy, suddenly to hear about all this focus on public messaging, it's a bit of a shock. It's like bats in a cave and suddenly they're out in the light. But that's one thing that you do learn at the White House that you may not necessarily learn in the other agencies.
James Green: The other question I wanted to ask you was about on the media side, there had been a fair amount of press about space launches of U.S. satellites on Chinese rockets and press about it in a somewhat partisan way-
Jeff Bader: Yeah, I remember it well.
James Green: How did you kind of conceive of that and how did you deal with that? I mean, you were focusing on the kind of relations with China and yet the public relations aspect of it was a critical component of the success.
Jeff Bader: Well, that particular issue had to do with a couple of American companies with Loral, which I think was building the rocket, they were a satellite builder. Ford was building satellites. A few companies were building satellites: Motorola. I mean, from my perspective at the China Desk, it was a commercial issue.
And I looked to our experts in the Defense Department and the CIA and in political-military bureau to provide assurances about technology transfer, that there were no unmanageable risks in terms of technology transfer in mating a U.S. satellite to a Chinese rocket because that was the only option that U.S. satellite makers had at the time. The U.S. was not launching rockets that commercial satellite makers could use. So basically, we were giving a death sentence to the American satellite manufacturers if we did not give them a foreign option and the Chinese seemed to be the best foreign option.
But obviously we did not want to risk serious technology transfer and the assurances seemed adequate. This was not an area where I had expertise. I counted on the expertise of others.
So there were a few episodes during that period where in particular in one case where a corporate official, perhaps was from Loral after a satellite blew up, provided information to the Chinese about the coupling data technology and mechanisms between the satellite and the rocket that he was not authorized to give and would have required an export license that would not have been granted and that caused the whole issue to kind of blow up.
And then a journalist seized on the issue, made it into his bid for the Pulitzer Prize, which I think he got. And it morphed, interestingly, immediately into the Wen Ho Lee, nuclear weapons caper, in which an American scientist of Chinese background, Wen Ho Lee, was accused of providing designs of U.S. nuclear weapons miniaturizations, as I recall, to the Chinese. And he was imprisoned and spent months in chains in unfavorable circumstances before the judge threw it out. That was all part of I think, the irresponsible journalism of the time. A journalist or two at the New York Times seeking fame, if not fortune, fame, and they got their fame and they got Wen Ho Lee improperly imprisoned for a year. And they blew up our satellite program.
So yeah, I mean, the relationship, we used to say, I think the term that Madeleine Albright used was 'multi-faceted'. There were a lot of things going on in the relationship. As I said, it was nuclear non-proliferation issue, there was satellite launch issue, which was very important to these American companies. There was the economic relationship, which was beginning to develop. There were human rights issues which the Clinton Administration had put high in the agenda in its first few years. There were arms control issues, trying to get the Chinese to stop nuclear testing, to at least suspend nuclear testing, if not sign and approve any comprehensive test ban treaty. There were Chinese arms sales to Iran and Chinese nuclear cooperation with Iran. It was just a vast array of issues.
And I think it was a common assumption in the U.S. government that you had to kind of deal with the relationship holistically. You couldn't afford the luxury of just sort of marching off and treating the Chinese with across-the-board hostility and expect their behavior to change in any of these areas. You had to kinda prioritize issues and work with the Chinese on changing in some cases longstanding behavior.
And I would argue that a lot of the longstanding behavior in the 1990s did change. They signed the CTBT. They stopped their nuclear testing. As I said, they changed their WMD, weapons of mass destruction, proliferation. Their work on the economic side is much too complex to get into here, but there were a lot of negotiations over specific issues that made some incremental gains.
And Taiwan got stabilized after the fireworks in 1996. So, I think the relationship in the 1990s, the leadership on the U.S. side achieved some real objectives.
James Green: You had mentioned President Clinton's trip and ten days and the first stop with Xi’an I think-
Jeff Bader: Yep.
James Green: If memory serves. Can you just talk through why so long for a president to be there? What you were trying to accomplish and what you saw as your goals in making it such an extended trip.
Jeff Bader: Well, that was a decision made at the stop, so I won't take credit for ten days, or blame, as it may be. It gets back to the point you were making earlier about the public messaging. I think there was a view in the White House that the only image people had of China at the time was a man in front of a tank, was the Tiananmen repression. And any time you chose to do anything on China policy, that's what you'd see in B-roll, on the media.
There was a feeling that the relationship was more complex at this point and we needed some new images. And President Clinton was media savvy, felt that getting lots of pictures back to American audiences, whether it was the soldiers at Xi’an or the-
James Green: The terracotta warrior soldiers, not PLA soldiers-
Jeff Bader: Terracotta warriors at Xi’an, yeah, right, they were not PLA. They were pre-PLA. Or the mountains of Guilin or the dynamism of Shanghai or visit the Forbidden City. Getting some of these images would provide a more balanced and realistic view of where China was in 1998 than endless focus on Tiananmen, which there was nothing we could do about then and nothing we could do about nine years later.
James Green: If I recall, one of the stops was in Shanghai in which President Clinton had a call-in radio show with the Shanghai mayor-
Jeff Bader: Yep.
James Green: Could we just talk a little bit about just access to the media for U.S. officials when they're in China? It's oftentimes quite limited or limiting and the Chinese side will promise that this will be broadcast or not broadcast or that it'll be uncut and then it ends up being cut. Can you just talk about some of those challenges?
Jeff Bader: You know, James, it varies. I mean, my strongest recollection is actually from the Obama years and President Obama's visit in 2009 and the way in which the Chinese manipulated and blocked President Obama's access to the media. Very unfortunate but very firm on their side. Clearly, they don't want unclear and uncontrolled messages going to their people. In the case of President Obama's visit, sort of endless wrangling over the format of his public remarks in Shanghai, the town hall meeting. Endless wrangling.
And then, basically blocking the president from meeting with I'd say some of the more pluralistic-oriented media in China. Insistence that he only meet with, I can't remember if it was Xinhua or People's Daily. And huge battle over streaming of his speech in Shanghai. The details of which I can get into if you want, but the point was they were trying to limit as much as possible.
And then finally the joint press conference where the Chinese refused to allow any questions. Just statements by the two sides. I remember when Hu Jintao came back to the U.S. in 2011, I was talking to the Chinese preparing the visit, I said, "Well, we're gonna have a press conference and we're gonna have two questions from each side." And the Chinese said, "Oh, well we'd rather not do that. The schedule's gonna be very tight."
And I said, "I don't care what you want. You're in the United States and those are the rules. He's taking questions. If he doesn't want to answer, that's up to him, but questions will be asked."
And the Chinese couldn't do anything about it, 'cause it was our home turf. But on their home turf, they insist on total control of the media message. And as a matter of fact, President Obama's visit, we got creamed in the media, the American media, over elements of that visit. And why do we accept this? Why do we accept that? Well, the answer is, I'm sorry, this is not the United Kingdom, okay? United Kingdom or Australia, they have similar ground rules to us and we get our message out the way we want.
But China's different. And you go there, you fight for every inch, and then you ultimately get what you get. But if you're gonna judge by the standards of what would happen in London, well, we're gonna come short every time and I know that's the story you guys like to write, because you don't wanna write a “dog bites man” story. You wanna write a “man bites dog” story.
But, I mean, during President Obama's trip, we did get streaming of the speech. And it was streamed on I can't remember which Chinese website. It was streamed not the video or the audio, but the transcript, written transcript. Okay? Which actually on the first run was not censored. Okay? And we also had it on the White House website in Chinese just in case it was censored. A little harder for Chinese to get to.
And I checked later in the week with our press people, how much coverage they got. I was told there was 65 million hits on it. That's more than you get in England for something to have 65 million people, or it has about that many people.
So, you do what you can. You try to infiltrate the message as best you can. And you accept that it's not gonna be according to the rules you like.
James Green: Ambassador Jeff Bader, speaking with me from Los Angeles, California. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. I’m your host, James Green.