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Ambassador Stapleton Roy
Ambassador Stapleton Roy
April 19, 2019

Stapleton Roy

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U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast

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No senior American official has spent as much time throughout his entire life studying in and working on China as Ambassador Stapleton Roy.

Born in China to missionary parents, Roy spent most of his youth growing up in pre-Communist China, then returned to the country of his birth as a U.S. official two decades later during the last gasps of the Cultural Revolution—when Maoist ideology seemed to trump all. As deputy chief of mission and then later as ambassador in Beijing, Roy participated in some of the most optimistic and darkest moments between the United States and China. Through the Cold War and bloodshed, secret negotiations and diplomacy, Ambassador Roy handled the most challenging foreign policy questions with a broad array of Chinese officials and leaders. This three-time ambassador's advice to U.S. officials for getting things done with foreign counterparts: find a counterpart looking for solutions—and don't be preachy.

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 J. Stapleton Roy.

Ambassador Roy's personal and professional journey in many ways embodies the relationship between the United States and China through much of the 20th Century. Born in China to missionary parents in the 1930s, Roy spent the next decade of his youth living in Chengdu, speaking Sichuanese. At the end of World War II, he took a U.S. Navy destroyer up the Yangtze River to continue his schooling in Nanjing and Shanghai. But the Chinese civil war interrupted young Stapleton's education in 1949, just as Mao Zedong was declaring the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1 in Tiananmen Square:

Mao audio: 中华人民共和国成立了! (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chenglile!)

James Green: After leaving Shanghai and coming to the United States, Roy graduated from Princeton and joined the State Department, eventually working on the Soviet Union. Then, following National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's breakthrough visit to Beijing in 1971, Roy was among the handful of officials involved in establishing official diplomatic relations between the United States and China. He returned to China as the #2 at the liaison office before it became an official embassy in 1979, then again as Ambassador a few short years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Here now, is Ambassador Stapleton Roy, talking to me about growing up in pre-Communist China, about how he participated in the secret negotiations to establish diplomatic relations, and about his interactions with Chinese officials and leaders over the last five decades.

Ambassador Stapleton Roy, thanks so much for taking time out today. Great to see you, appreciate you coming to talk with us today. You have an incredible personal history with China and a professional history. I wanted to just start on what it was like growing up in China and how you felt Chinese people saw you. Your parents were missionaries, and you were in a mix of Chinese and kind of foreign households. How do you think you were perceived in China by your Chinese friends and contacts?

Stapleton Roy: I was born in China but after one year my parents went back to the United States for two years of furlough because they had come to China in 1930, had spent two years in what was called Beiping then, studying Chinese and then they, they were educational missionaries. Now I have to say something about missionaries. Missionaries fall into three groups. There are the evangelical missionaries, who are basically ordained people and who try to convert people to Christianity and depending on whatever variety of Christianity they belong to. But you also had educational missionaries who were not ministers. They were educators and they worked in the colleges and universities that had been established in China with financial support from church contributions in the United States or other countries.

My parents were educational missionaries. My father was not a minister.

And you also the medical missionaries. Who was, again, from a desire to help people, essentially would go to foreign countries and practice medicine. And again, they're not ordained ministers. But they’re missionaries in the sense that they are trying to set an example of how Christianity and other religions, actually, can inspire people to try to help their fellow human beings. My parents were assigned to Nanjing where I was born. And there were many American missionaries there. But when the Japanese invaded China, after 1937, the non-Manchurian parts of China, after 1937, the University of Nanjing, of Nanking it was called, moved to Chengdu.

Chengdu was not an area of U.S. missionary presence. They were there but they were, but it was basically British and Canadian missionaries that were there.

So, we were in a university environment in Chengdu when my family returned to China in 1938. My father had gotten his M.A. at Princeton during the period of '36 to '38. It was wartime. We were bombed on a regular basis for four years. When we first arrived there, the Japanese air raids would occur in daytime because there was no air force. Later on, they switched to night bombing. But either way, we had to get up frequently at night and go to the dugouts and wait 'till the bombing raids were over.

We lived in a mixed community. The university area, which was called Huaxiba, it was where the West China Union University was located. The city of Chengdu itself was a walled city, population 400,000 to 500,000 thousand people. The capital of Sichuan, which was China's most populous province at the time, was hundreds of millions, but here is, Chengdu was a little provincial town. No paved roads inside or outside the city.

James Green: None?

Stapleton Roy: None. We lived across the river where the, Jinjiang hotel now, there's a bridge there. That bridge didn't exist. So, when we wanted to go into the city, we had to go along the river bank, and then enter the city further down. Only rickshaws, no pedicabs, and Chengdu is very hot in the summer so we would generally go up into the mountain areas and stay in Buddhist temples.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Which was the only place you could have, there were no hotels.

James Green: So, like, Emeishan, or?

Stapleton Roy: We spent one summer in a temple in Emeishan, we spent one summer, in Ya’an.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And we spent one summer at a place called Bailuding which was up near Guanxian, where the river comes out of the mountains. And it was a half a day hike up into the mountains. And there was a place on a mountaintop where the cottages had been built. And we spent a summer there. So, this was just a way escaping the heat.

James Green: Pre-air conditioning.

Stapleton Roy: That's right. And Chengdu itself, when we first arrived there was a Canadian school, which had a regular school building and a swimming pool and facilities. This was in '38. I was three years old. I went through kindergarten and began first grade, I guess, with the Canadian school still open, but people were gradually moving back to Europe or the Western hemisphere, and the school closed in the early 1940s, so we ended up being home-schooled for the next three to four years. This was not a problem because it was a university environment, so the parents were all well-educated.

James Green: And educators.

Stapleton Roy: And so, we would go from the dining room to kitchens of different missionary homes for our schooling.

James Green: And when you say we, you and your brother.

Stapleton Roy: My brother and the other missionary kids there. But you asked about interactions with Chinese and how the Chinese viewed us. You had to make a distinction. In the university environment, everything was interchangeable. There were no barriers. My parents’ closest friends were Chinese. We had Chinese students who usually stayed in our house, with us. I had playmates who were Chinese. Because we lived in a duplex house and the other half of the duplex was occupied by a mid-level Sichuan government official. And he had children that were my age.

And so, I would go out and play with them. So, I grew up speaking pure Sichuan dialect. I can still distinctly remember that I was embarrassed to hear my parents speak Chinese because they spoke with the- what's now called the Beijing accent. Which to my ears was wrong Chinese.

James Green: Sounded foreign and wrong?

Stapleton Roy: And so (laughs) it was embarrassing to hear them speak it. When I went to the United States at the age of 10, I forgot all of my Sichuanese and when we went back in '48-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...and began to relearn Chinese it was with the proper Mandarin pronunciation. And all of a sudden, my parents' Chinese improved enormously (laughs).

James Green: Got much (laughs), got much better.

Stapleton Roy: So, when you traveled outside, for example, going to Emei, there were no paved roads, all of these were dirt roads and in many cases, there were no bridges. So, you had to travel by truck and you would have these big long boards on the truck and when you came to these, not a river-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...but, but as you know-

James Green:But a stream or a, yeah.

Stapleton Roy: ... a stream, you have this enormous, 2,000-year-old irrigation system on the on the Chengdu Plain. And you would have to cross these gullies. And you got out of the truck, and they’d put the boards across the gully, and then the truck would very carefully drive across the gully, and you would then re-board it on the other side. And you'd do this repeatedly as you moved off toward Emei.

My first experiences, see up to the age of 15 there were no barriers between foreigners and Chinese. And so, we lived in the university community, it was completely interaction with Chinese. And in Nanjing, I'm getting a little disjointed in the way I'm presenting this, I was there from three to 10, during World War II. And when the war in Europe ended in '45, we'd already been in China for seven years. And so we exited China via India and took a refugee ship back to the United States through the Suez Canal.

The war in the Pacific was still continuing. But it ended within the month after we got back to the United States. Three years later in '48, we returned to China. And my brother entered the school in Shanghai, where there was a Shanghai American School. And I went with my parents to Nanjing where there was still an American school there. But it closed after two months.

And so, I was sent down to Shanghai.

James Green: This was in '46 or end of '45?

Stapleton Roy: This was in '48.

James Green: '48.

Stapleton Roy: '48. This was, we got back to China in September of '48. The government had just introduced what was called the gold yuan. The exchange rate was one U.S. dollar to four gold yuan. So, a gold yuan was worth about a quarter of U.S. money. But here's the bizarre thing about how we functioned in Chinese in those days. I was 13 years old. I was evacuated to Shanghai with members of the American community who were beginning to leave China because the Communist forces were getting closer. The school closed.

James Green: The school in Nanjing that you were in?

Stapleton Roy: In Nanjing.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: We were evacuated from Nanjing to Shanghai on a U.S. destroyer.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative), why?

Stapleton Roy: Because in those days of gunboat diplomacy, U.S. destroyers could go up the river. But when I arrived in Shanghai as a 13-year-old, I was not escorted by anybody. Nobody met me. So, I had to take a pedicab out to the Shanghai American School and that was about a 40-minute ride from the dock to where the school was located. And I tried to pay with one gold yuan, and he didn't have change. (Laughs)

Stapleton Roy: So, I generously let him keep (laughs)-

James Green: The rest of the-

Stapleton Roy: ... the one, the one gold yuan. It just illustrates within five months the exchange rate was jumping by 100 million a day.

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: So, the gold yuan had become worthless and everybody used silver coins. And the streets were lined with people who would have 20 or 30 silver coins balanced on their arms and they would walk along and moved their arms so that the top one would click. So, if you wanted to get some money you would listen for the clicking sound. (Laughs).

James Green: And the, the silver coins were-

Stapleton Roy: The silver coins didn't, there was no inflation with respect to them. But the paper money-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: It reached, it reached an extreme where, the money was cheaper than the paper it was printed on. So that actually a beer company I remember, began to use 25,000-dollar bills to print their labels on.

James Green: To put it on the beer bottle. (Laughs).

Stapleton Roy: On the beer (laughs) bottle.

James Green: 'Cause the paper was worth something to print the-

Stapleton Roy: That's right.

James Green: Oh.

Stapleton Roy: But that was, that was just before the communists took the city.

James Green: And you'd mentioned foreigners were starting to leave then. Was there a sense at that moment that, wow, when the communists take over, we as foreigners are going to have to leave? We're just not going to be allowed here?

Stapleton Roy: There was the sense that normal patterns of behavior would be disrupted. But this did not apply to the missionaries who worked in the educational institutions. So, what happened is a lot of the business and official, Nanjing was the capital of the Republic in China. A lot of the officialdom, dependents, and business community left. Others who were settled in occupations that would continue-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ... some of them stayed on, some of them left. My parents had just come back to China and they were inclined to stay.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, they didn't think that just because, the Communist Party was going to control all of China that somehow their educational work would be disrupted?

Stapleton Roy: We didn't know what was gonna happen.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: But my brother and I were in Shanghai, my parents were in Nanjing, the Communist forces took Nanjing in April of 1949 and we were left in Shanghai. Our relatives in the United States were frantically telling us to get on the next boat and come back. And my brother and I consulted, I can still remember, met him several times-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ... and I was 13 and he was 15. And we decided to stay.

James Green: The two of you decided-

Stapleton Roy: The two decided to stay.

And the Shanghai American School stayed open although the student body collapsed. So, there were only several dozen students left but the time the Communist forces entered Shanghai. After communists took over the big question was stabilizing the city. And this was new for the Communists, they hadn't been running big cities like Shanghai. But after a month we able to get permission to go back to Nanjing. So, my brother and I and one other missionary classmate of my brother's, a girl, went back to Nanjing. At the time we didn't know whether the Shanghai American School was going to be able to continue. So, we went back to Nanjing with the expectation that we would go back to Shanghai.

James Green: And I presume, sorry, not on a destroyer this time back from Nanjing.

Stapleton Roy: Not on a destroyer, no, on a train. And all trains in China at that time, were so crowded that you always had a lot of people on the roofs of the, if you see in Indian movies you, you sometimes see this. But that was the pattern in China. People rode on top of the rail cars as well as inside.

James Green: Sorry, so you went back to Nanjing.

Stapleton Roy: We went back to Nanjing but just for precaution purposes we took textbooks with us.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And which was fortunate because the Chinese didn't officially close the school. What they did was, they put a claim for back taxes to the 1920s that they claimed the school had not paid. And essentially bankrupted the school. So-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative), interesting. So, the new rulers of Shanghai-

Stapleton Roy: Yeah.

James Green: ... the Communist rulers looked at the tax information-

Stapleton Roy: Yeah.

James Green: ... and said, yeah, this school didn't pay and so we need to have that.

Stapleton Roy: That's right.

James Green: Interesting, hmm.

James Green: So, then you went back to Nanjing, you brought your books, with you and you didn't end up going back to Shanghai.

Stapleton Roy: Didn't end up going back to Shanghai. So, then the question was homeschooling because there was no school in Nanjing, but we were in a university environment again. And so, there are only three of us and there were two children of a Dutch, the Dutch chargé, so the five of- the four of us, the oldest son of the Dutch chargé was at college level. But the other one was at the level of my brother. So, the four of us began homeschooling in the homes of university professors. And that continued for the next year.

James Green: So that for you that would have been the beginning of high school. Was that right?

Stapleton Roy: I was in-

James Green: Or end of middle school.

Stapleton Roy: ... the problem was I'd completed my ninth grade at the Shanghai, and I'd skipped a grade when I was in the United States so I was only year behind my brother. But they were a year ahead of me. It didn't work to have separate years so that I took my junior year after my freshman year. I joined them in their courses. Then when I came back to the United States, it was a little awkward because (laughs) I went to Mount Hermon in Massachusetts and entered as a sophomore-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And then jumped to my senior year (laughs).

James Green: I see, wow. And your parents stayed. Is that right?

Stapleton Roy: My parents stayed, and but after the, the period from the Communist takeover until, the outbreak of the Korean War, we didn't have any real harassment at all.

James Green: Hmm.

Stapleton Roy: Uh-

James Green: Before you get to the Korean War I just want to ask when Mao, proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ... on October first where were you? How did you guys hear the news? What, what did that, what was that like?

Stapleton Roy: Well, here’s the way it impacted on us. Nanjing had been the, until the, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1 of 1949, Nanjing had remained the capital of China. And so the embassies were all located in Nanjing and they had a much higher standard of living than we missionary people who were living on the local economy. But after they established the People's Republic of China, many of the European countries recognized the new government and so they then began the process of moving their embassies up to Beijing.

And the American Embassy wasn't certain what to do. We hadn't, we hadn't made a decision yet whether we would recognize the new Communist government. So, the ambassador was Leighton Stuart. And I remember in '49, right after returning from Shanghai to Nanjing after the Communist takeover, he had a little private reception for the very reduced American community. But he didn't do an official reception because we didn't have official relations with the Communist authorities. But in the fall and especially after establishment of the People's Republic of China, the American embassy pulled out, and the British took over the protection responsibility for us, so that when we actually ended up leaving after the outbreak of the Korean War in June of 1950, we traveled on British documents that had been issued on behalf of the American government as the protecting power.

James Green: Sorry, you were saying, so then after the proclamation of the Peoples' Republic in October first you were saying relations seemed okay or you, thing seemed to be-

Stapleton Roy: Things continued normally except for the pull out of the diplomatic community, which affected quality of life a little bit. But in other respects, life went on normally.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: It was the outbreak of the Korean War that was a big break. We did not encounter overt anti-Americanism during that first year, from the summer of '49 until June of 1950.

James Green: Hmm.

Stapleton Roy: But after the Korean War broke out of course the story put out was that South Korea had attacked North Korea and that North Koreans had then counter attacked and that the Americans and ... Things didn't change until the Americans entered the war which was two to three days later. Then the environment became hostile to the United States. And that's when my parents made the decision that my brother and I should go back to the United States, so that our schooling wouldn't be interrupted.

James Green: And at a personal level people stopped you on the street and ask if you were American or say something?

Stapleton Roy: No. Curiously, the sentiment at the time toward foreigners was, if they were thought to be Russians, there was some hostility. So, there was anti-Russian or anti-Soviet-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...feelings. But I never encountered a single experience at that time of anti-American feeling. One thing we did encounter was under the KMT [Kuomintang] foreigners got special treatment. And that ended under the Communists. But my parents never like the special treatment and my brother, and I inherited that attitude.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, we actually thought it was a good thing.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: That the Chinese government was treating us like everybody else.

James Green: So, you came back to the U.S. and your parents stayed for some time after that?

Stapleton Roy: They stayed until the spring of 1951. And as I say, they ended up in house arrest and, then they had a public trial. And my father was accused of being an imperialist spy.

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: And my parents ended up being expelled.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: My brother and I and Joan Smith, who was the third, when we left in July of 1950, again, just the three of us traveling together. We took a train back to Shanghai, and had enough of a layover, to be able to take a pedicab out to the Shanghai American School just to see.

James Green: To take a look.

Stapleton Roy: But it had been occupied by a Chinese government institution. So we just looked at it from the outside. And then we continued on to Guangzhou.

James Green: By boat to Guangzhou?

Stapleton Roy: No, by train.

James Green: By train to Guangzhou.

Stapleton Roy: It was about two, it was two nights on the train, I think, so it was a two-day trip. And then you went down to where Shenzhen is now.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Which was just rice patties, and the hotel you stayed in there consisted of wooden planks over a swamp with bamboo screens between the so-called rooms and you slept on wooden boards on sawhorses.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And these were people who were waiting to have their documents checked to get, get into Hong Kong?

Stapleton Roy: This was waiting to have your documents check and you then carried your suitcases and walked across the bridge to Hong Kong. And then you were in Hong Kong.

James Green: I'd like to move to your next visit to China-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ... which I think was with a congressional delegation in 1976.

Stapleton Roy: That's correct.

James Green: Could you talk a little bit about, and I've heard you say probably you met with one of the members of the Gang of Four-

Stapleton Roy: Yes.

James Green: ... with this delegation.

Stapleton Roy: Yeah, Zhang Chunqiao.

James Green: Could you talk a little bit about that congressional delegation-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: And then also how that meeting went.

Stapleton Roy: When my brother and I came back from China, he ended up going to Harvard and I ended up going to Princeton. And when I graduated from Princeton I joined the Foreign Service, so I joined the foreign service in 1956 and was assigned to Chinese language training in Taiwan for a year, and then it was two years in our embassy in Bangkok, and then I was assigned to our consulate general in Hong Kong, and then I was pulled out of there to go be the special assistant to our ambassador in Taibei at that time. So, this is the background leading up to it. And then I went off to Mongolian training and from that we didn't establish the diplomatic relations with Mongolia at that time, so I was assigned to the Soviet desk. And I'd been working on the Soviet desk for, I spent nine years working with the Soviet.

James Green: Sorry, so you were saying, back to 1976 and-

Stapleton Roy: Okay.

James Green: ... and your trip.

Stapleton Roy: At the end of my Soviet period, I was assigned to the National War College. And at the end of that I was, I decided to try to switch back to the, you know, East Asia.

James Green: Did you always know that you wanted to work on East Asia given your, kind of personal background and interest?

Stapleton Roy: What got me into the Foreign Service was that, your junior year in college you begin to worry about what you want to do when you graduate. And I was interested in international affairs because of the experience of living abroad and a State Department recruiter came to Princeton and gave a talk about the Foreign Service, which sounded exciting, and I was reading about Foreign Service officers in the courses I was taking at Princeton, so it sounded interesting.

So, I decided I would try to join the Foreign Service. And at the time, this was 1956, they were not generally hiring people straight out of college. If you passed the oral- the written exam, and you took your oral exam they would often say, you've done well, but go do your military service, come back in two years or three years and you won't have to retake the exams, et cetera. So that's what I was expecting.

So, I applied for a military program, to become a Navy flyer, and then I passed my Foreign Service oral, and they offered me an appointment.

James Green: They said come on in.

Stapleton Roy: Yeah, I, same day that I got my orders to go to Pensacola to begin my Navy training (laughs).

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: So, I went to my draft board-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ... and I said, "What's my draft status?" And they said, "50/50."

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, I decided that I'd join the Foreign Service. So that's ... I got into the Foreign Service in '56 but I finished the War College in the class of '75 and was assigned to the ... What happened while I was in Moscow is Henry Kissinger shows up in Beijing and totally changed my work in Moscow.

James Green: Mmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Because the Russians had refused to give me any access to their China specialists.

James Green: So, you were in Moscow as a kind of Asia watcher for the embassy? Or a foreign policy person?

Stapleton Roy: Well, actually I went into Moscow, I'd been three years on the Soviet desk, and then I'd gone to advanced Russian training in Garmisch, Germany, so I did not go into Moscow as an Asian specialist, but as a Russian specialist.

James Green: Hmm, wow.

Stapleton Roy: At the time, we had a program of assigning officers from East Asia, Africa, Middle East, Latin America, to our embassy in Moscow, giving them a year of Russian language training-

James Green: Mmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ... and then they would go back to their own specialties-

James Green: With some knowledge of Soviet-

Stapleton Roy: ... with some knowledge of what the Soviet Union was all about.

James Green: I see, I see, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Because most of our embassies were completely ignorant.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy:You know, the, "Oh, the Russians are coming." You know, they didn't know anything at all about the Soviet Union.

James Green:Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And we had one of those officers in the embassy when I was assigned to it after the language training. But I was assigned as an administrative officer, the deputy administrative officer in Moscow was a language officer, whereas the administrative counselor often didn't have Russian. And so, I was the, the Russian voice in the ... But then after a year and a quarter or something, the Asia specialist left and I was moved up to the political section, and covered Asia.

James Green: I see.

Stapleton Roy: But I couldn't get any access to their Asia specialists until Henry Kissinger showed up in Beijing.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And this was in July of '71. So that completely changed everything for me because, all of a sudden, they wanted to talk to me to try to find out-

James Green: They wanted to-

Stapleton Roy: ... what was going in, in the U.S.-China relations. And then when I came, then I came back from Moscow, spent two years on the Soviet desk, I was the deputy director of the Soviet desk, I went to the National War College, and then I wanted to get back into East Asia. But they didn't want me in East Asia, because I was a Soviet specialist, and the people had forgotten that I actually do Chinese and had served in East Asia. Fortunately, an older officer, more senior, had been serving in- a missionary kid, Bill Gleistein, he was senior to me in the Foreign Service. He had been serving in Tokyo and had come to Taipei. And I accompanied him on his calls on the Chinese government there. So, he knew I spoke Chinese. So, when people said I was only a specialist he said, "Nonsense." (Laughs).

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: So that's how I got back in as, as deputy director of the China desk. At the time, this was '75, Nixon had resigned, as you recall, and Gerald Ford was the president. Ford was making up his mind whether or not to try for diplomatic relations with China by the end of his first term. Which of course was just the final, what, Nixon resigned in August of '74, so Ford had essentially a year and a half until the elections in '76. And he decided that he'd wait until he got re-elected to do it. So, there wasn't a lot going on the policy front. But after we had established the liaison offices in Beijing, we had an agreement that we would send one or possibly two congressional delegations to China a year. And when I became the deputy director of the China desk, I would become the escort officer for these delegations going.

James Green: So, you would brief them beforehand, tell them what was going to happen, and then accompany them there.

Stapleton Roy: And accompany with them. When you brief people in Washington, you're lucky to get 15 minutes of their time, and you're lucky to get five minutes of their attention. When you're escorting them to China, they're intensely interested, and while they're in Beijing, they are totally focused. When they leave Beijing and start traveling to other parts of China, they then begin drinking and relaxing and-

James Green: They get distracted.

Stapleton Roy: ... and get distracted. But you get really quality time with the members of Congress when you escort them there. This was, I was the escort of the House Armed Services Committee and we'd not sent any of our military, of our congressional delegations with military responsibilities. So, this was the first one.

James Green: Hmm, wow.

Stapleton Roy: And this was in April of 1976. Well, if you recall '76 was a very important year in China. Zhou Enlai had died in January of '76. Deng Xiaoping who had been brought back- the Cultural Revolution was still going on, but Deng Xiaoping had been brought back and was serving as vice premier, but he had dropped out of sight.

There had then been a demonstration in Tiananmen Square in April of '76. Two weeks before our delegation. And the demonstration was a protest that Zhou Enlai's death had been given so little attention, interesting parallel to the demonstrations in '89 over Hu Yaobang not having been given appropriate attention.

So, what was interesting at that time was that I accompanied three congressional delegations to China each in April of '76, '77, '78.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative), wow.

Stapleton Roy: And then I was assigned to the liaison office in the summer of '78 as the deputy chief of the liaison office.

James Green: So, I've heard you talk a little bit about the meeting. Did you guys meet in the Great Hall of the People?

Stapleton Roy: We met in the Great Hall of People and we had a discussion of in- international affairs but all of our meetings, I can still remember we went out to Peking University and Tsinghua and met with them and they were justifying the reduction of the school year to three years which occurred under the Cultural Revolution. We met with the Chinese military for the first time, not a very warm and friendly meeting. The senior military-

James Green: Must be one of the fi-

Stapleton Roy: ...of that time in many cases had fought against us in Korea themselves.

James Green: Hmm.

Stapleton Roy: Some of our people, some members of Congress had fought in the Korean War.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, it didn't establish good camaraderie-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...under the circumstances at that time.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, but it was interesting. But the meeting with Zhang Chunqiao was heavily ideological. He talked the type of Communist jargon that I was familiar with from my days in Moscow.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Socialist internationalism and it was quite clear that if a government with that ideological way of looking at the world-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: …remained in power in China, that we were gonna have an easy time, working out our bilateral relationship. But they were gone by the, Zhang Chunqiao one of the- people say there's instability in China. He’d say, “You were just in Tiananmen Square. Did you see any demonstrations?” He said, “Everything is calm in China.” Six months later of course they were purged.

James Green: Not so calm for him, right?

Stapleton Roy: Yup.

James Green: I'd like to move to your time as the deputy of the, of the liaison office.

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green:...and that kind of establishment of diplomatic relations which was done under a fair amount of secrecy. Could you just talk a little bit about U.S. objectives and how those were conducted and who your counterparts were on the Chinese side?

Stapleton Roy: Let me lead up to that. When the '77 elections, Ford did not get re-elected and Jimmy Carter came in. And you ended up with a disagreement between Cy Vance and Brzezinski. Brzezinski was the national security advisor; Cy Vance was the secretary of state. Carter wanted to move ahead with a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union and he wanted to move ahead on trying to get normalized relations with China. Vance wanted to push the Soviet, give it priority. Brzezinski wanted to push the China side. Vance won. So, the priority during '77 was on negotiating with the Soviet Union.

James Green: And Brzezinski's motivation was to put pressure on the Soviets by establishing diplomatic relations with the Chinese, or was it merely a bureaucratic difference?

Stapleton Roy: I think the primary motive on Brzezinski's side was recognition that we needed diplomatic relations with China. Because, as I discovered during my, I was six months under the liaison office before we established diplomatic relations. Our activities were very constrained. The only Chinese government office that we could meet with was the U.S. and Oceanian Affairs Department.

James Green: Of the foreign ministry.

Stapleton Roy: Of the foreign ministry.

James Green: I see.

Stapleton Roy: We had no access to other departments of the foreign ministry, and it was quite clear that getting the benefits of the strategic breakthrough with China that had essentially made us strategic partners in dealing with the Soviet threat couldn't be realized if we were constrained by not having diplomatic relations. I think Brzezinski understood this-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: But Brzezinski also was a Pole, in his blood, and if anything would make the Soviets unhappy, he was in favor of it. So, I think there was that element to his-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: But he was not out to sabotage the START talks with the Soviet Union either, but the START talks did not go somewhere. There was a mistaken belief, which I did not share, having served on the Soviet side, that somehow improving relations with China was negative in terms of our relationship with the Soviet Union. I thought quite the opposite because I'd been serving in Moscow in '72 when President Nixon went to Beijing. And he was scheduled to come into Moscow in May after his visit to Beijing, but in the spring of 1972, we were having some severe military problems with the Vietnamese and we engaged in carpet bombing of the outskirts of Hanoi and the question was will the Soviets cancel the summit meeting because of that.

I was confident that they would not (laughs). And it turned out that was accurate. Actually, our movement ahead with China was a positive influence in terms of dealing with the Soviet Union. But that was not broadly shared in the U.S. government. But the START talks ran into problems and that gave Brzezinski the opportunity to push ahead the Chinese negotiations. So, for that first, that was useful actually because during 1977, I was on the China desk. I was actively involved in preparing the policy recommendations for the president on what we ought to do about trying to get diplomatic relations with China. And we ended up giving them three options, two of which set as the goal something short of full diplomatic relations but enabled us to retain some sort of official relations with Taiwan, and the third one recognized that we couldn't have any official relationship with Taiwan if we went for diplomatic relations.

The president opted for the third. And at that point I was assigned to- rather I was picked by Leonard Woodcock to be his deputy-

James Green: I see.

Stapleton Roy: ...and he was tasked with the job of carrying out the negotiations.

James Green: Hmm.

Stapleton Roy: Since I was intimately familiar with the policy papers, I think that's one of the reasons he picked me. And everything was very secret, and I was fully read in on it.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So that I was assigned to the liaison office in June of 1978 and we began the secret negotiations in July of '78.

James Green: And your counterpart on the Chinese side was the Foreign Ministry North American Affairs office?

Stapleton Roy: Foreign minister. It was Huang Hua.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, Leonard Woodcock and Huang Hua had a series of meetings beginning right after July 4, I think our first meeting was on July 5, '78. And our game plan had been that we would deal with different sets of issues. We recognized the most difficult sets of issues would be the relationship with Taiwan, and particularly the military relationship. But we had to also discuss the economic and other questions. So, our idea was we'd, we'd deal with one issue and then hear the Chinese response to that and then we'd move on to another issue. The Chinese would have none of that. They wanted us to lay all our cards on the table, and then respond.

So, we had a series of meetings at which we ran through each of these, baskets of issues and meeting with Huang Hua. In any event, when we were ready for the Chinese response, we were told that Huang Hua was ill and we had to meet with Han Yanlong who was the vice foreign minister. Well, that presented a problem for us because we hadn't yet heard the Chinese response and as a result, we didn't know whether it was a diplomatic illness-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...meaning they were dissatisfied with our presentation-

James Green: Mmm.

Stapleton Roy: ...and therefore they were lowering the level of the talks.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: Or whether Huang Hua was genuinely ill, and we should go ahead. So, we consulted with Washington-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...and mutually agreed that we should go ahead with the meeting anyway.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative), to hear what the Chinese had to say.

Stapleton Roy: Yeah.

James Green: Mmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...and his response was basically, positive. And at the end of the meeting he said that Deng Xiaoping would want to meet with us. Which again, was a very positive signal. So obviously they weren't downgrading, they actually, we were being bucked up to a higher level. But they didn't say- he said it will be in near future-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...but we didn't know when. Well, this was awkward for me because my wife and I had a trip planned in China and Woodcock didn't want me to be away from the liaison office. He didn't know when the c- but my wife didn't know about the secret negotiations-

James Green: I see, wow.

Stapleton Roy: ...and so I had to cancel the trip (laughs) coming up with some story about it. So, it was a little bit awkward. But in any event, I guess within 10 days, two weeks, we began our meetings with Deng Xiaoping that lead to the final agreement.

James Green: And at that moment Deng Xiaoping was what rank officially?

Stapleton Roy: He was the vice premier.

James Green: Vice premier.

Stapleton Roy: Hua Guofeng was the premier. Which was an awkward thing for us because in reaching an agreement we were inviting a Chinese leader to visit to Washington. We assumed the leader should be Deng Xiaoping, but he was only a vice premier. And we didn't want to insult the Chinese by ignoring the premier. So, we ended up inviting a senior level-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...Chinese leader to visit the United States and Deng said, "I accept." (Laughs).

James Green: (Laughs).

Stapleton Roy: So that removed the problem for us (laughs).

James Green: Let their system deal with it that way. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: That's right, mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Green: I just wanted to back up for, for one second and before moving onto other areas of the normalization discussion was. When you went back to China to live did you have any contacts or friends from your earlier time that you were able to kind of reconnect with, or?

Stapleton Roy: Yes.

James Green: And how was that?

Stapleton Roy: Most foreigners who go to China are given transliterated names. They may take a Chinese form but they in many cases, well I, for example, Trump is referred to as Telangpu which any Chinese would know is a transliterated name as opposed to a Chinese name. But I had grown up in China, my father had a Chinese surname and I had a Chinese name going back to my childhood. So, when I was assigned to the liaison office the question was what Chinese name should I use and I wanted to use my original Chinese name. And the Foreign Ministry agreed. So that anytime there was a reference to me in the press, anyone who had known my family-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: ...was able to make the connection.

James Green: I see.

James Green: I just wanted to finish up on the normalization part of it.

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: Which is, Deng Xiaoping had strong views on the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, what it should or shouldn't be.

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: Could you just give, talk a little bit about what the Chinese position was and kind of where we ended up.

Stapleton Roy: The Chinese had set three bottom line conditions and this was reflected in the papers that we presented to President Carter so that he recognized that to meet the Chinese conditions we had to bread diplomatic relations with Taiwan and only maintain non-official relations, we had to end our security treaty and we had to withdraw our military personnel. We didn't have a whole lot on Taiwan. They were mostly advisory groups, but we had to remove them. So, but we were not prepared to halt arms sales. In other words, we were not prepared to sort of abandon Taiwan. We wanted to enable it to keep sufficient self-defense capabilities so that it wouldn't be just gobbled up.

We recognized that was gonna be the most difficult issue. So, when we got to that portion of the presentation we had some very carefully worked out languages that didn't sort of confront him with it, but which made clear that we would intend to continue arms sales to Taiwan after breaking relations with them and ending the military relationship.

When we finally reached agreement with Deng Xiaoping and had drafted the communique, Carter who was very, very good. He didn't leave anything ambiguous, they came out to us and said, “Does Deng understand that we are going to continue arm sales?” And Woodcock and I consulted and we went back to Washington and we said we, you know, faithfully presented the talking points, which should have conveyed the thing but we could not exclude the possibility that he would read it in terms of his interests as opposed to our interests. So, we cannot say it with total certainty that he understands that.

And as we expected Carter came back and said go back in and tell him, straightforward. So that's what we did. And he was, it confirmed that he had misread our language.

James Green: Mmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And, he was truly angry, truly angry because we were at the, we were at the point of almost making the announcement and here he was confronted with this arms sales thing. What we didn't know, of course, also, is that they were having a- plenum was going on which was about to announce the reform and opening policies.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Green: So, he was busy during that time is what you're saying.

Stapleton Roy: That's right and he had probably briefed the leaders on an agreement that did not involve continuing arms sales and we went back in and said we have to; we are going to be continuing this. So, he was really angry, but at the end when he calmed down, he said to Woodcock, he says, you know, this is unacceptable. What should we do? And Woodcock said, we can't solve this here, but my judgment is that we can deal with this problem more effectively if we have diplomatic relations than if we don't. And, and Deng thought for a moment and said, okay. And then he came back, he didn't want arm sales to continue while- because we had insisted on terminating the security treaty with Taiwan according to the terms of the treaty and that meant you had to give a year’s notice.

James Green: A year’s notice, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And so, he didn't want arms sales during the year. And we didn't know how Washington was going to react to that, but they accepted that. So that we didn't make any arms sales during 1979.

James Green: And then the Taiwan Relations Act passed and-

Stapleton Roy: The Taiwan Relations Act, our big problem was how to, it was an unprecedented problem in diplomatic affairs. How do you maintain a robust unofficial relationship with an entity with whom you have numerous treaties, commercial treaties, business treaties, all sorts of, things. Eventually we came up with this idea of a Taiwan Relations Act, necessary to provide the legal underpinning, for the unofficial relationship with Taiwan. The concept at the time of relation was the Carter administration. Some people are misunderstanding it and think that this Congress forced the Taiwan Relations Act on the Carter administration. That's not accurate. The draft of the act was presented to Congress after we announced the establishment of diplomatic relations.

I want to make an additional point because it's related to the issue of secrecy. Before we began the negotiations, we went down to Congress and met with the top leadership, on both the Republican and Democratic side and briefed them on our bottom line which included breaking relations with Taiwan, ending the security treaty and removing the military forces. So that the top leadership in Congress knew that we were going to agree to those things. And they did not object.

James Green: And this was a time when Taiwan still had a lot of friends on Capitol Hill.

Stapleton Roy: They, they had enormous friends on the, and they told us we were doing the right thing but that they would publicly criticize us for doing it. So that was, if there had been leakage of negotiations they probably would have been aborted because Congress would have raised objections. But as long as you could keep it secret, they were willing to accept the fait accompli (laughs).

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: So, this was quite nerve-wracking because maintaining secrecy is not easy in Washington.

James Green: Right.

Stapleton Roy: But it was done successfully.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: It caused some resentment in the liaison office because our staff-

James Green: Were cut out.

Stapleton Roy: Were cut out- totally of, of what was going on and people don't like to be cut out (laughs). But Congress did strengthen the security language in the Taiwan Relations Act which is carefully scripted. It's not a NATO agreement or something, but it makes it clear that we would consider a threat to the security of Taiwan as a, as a something the US government had to give serious attention to.

James Green: And the Chinese reaction to the Taiwan Relations Act?

Stapleton Roy: Very negative. Very negative. We told the Chinese that we would be taking steps to enable us to carry out an unofficial relationship with Taiwan but that was U.S. domestic affairs. So, we did not brief them on how we intended to do it.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: That was not a negotiable issue; in other words, we were gonna have to do it our way.

James Green: So, moving to your time as ambassador-

Stapleton Roy: Yup.

James Green:, came back in '91-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ...after the Tiananmen crackdown, what was that like to ... I guess I should ask first, you were back in the department, back in the State Department-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ...during the Tiananmen incident.

Stapleton Roy: But not as deputy assistant, see I had become the executive secretary at the State Department. I was a special assistant to Secretary Baker. So, I was watching it as a non-participant.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Green: And was your, from what you saw, I know there was a lot of interaction between the White House and the State Department-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ...on kind of what the reaction should be-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ...what the U.S. should do, from where you sat in the executive secretary office and the secretary of state-

Stapleton Roy: Right.

James Green: ...what did you see as kind of U.S. goals or U.S. policy and then how did we do in kind of implementing that?

Stapleton Roy: Leaders are human beings and George Herbert Walker Bush, who became President in 1989, had been head of our liaison office in Beijing from 1974 to '75. '75 he came back as head of the CIA. When I arrived at the liaison office, oh, well while he was the liaison office head, that overlapped with when I came back on the China desk. So, when he would come back to Washington to go call on Congress or to senior government officials, I would accompany him and-

James Green: As deputy director of the China desk at the time.

Stapleton Roy: deputy director of the China desk, bag carrier, note taker, what have you. So, we got to know each other at that time. When my wife and I were assigned to the, liaison office in the summer of '78, my wife's arrival was delayed 'cause she just had our third child and she arrived six weeks after I got there, I guess with a six-week-old child. Barbara Bush had just come in to town at the same time. And our, we shared a, our two apartments faced each other in the apartment building the, with the economic counselor in the liaison office and I was in the DCM apartment and Barbara Bush knew the economic counselor who had served with her in the liaison office when they were the head. But her purpose in coming back to China was to tell the Chinese leaders that her husband had made the decision to run for president in 1980.

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: This was part of the, in other words he was competing with Ronald Reagan for the nomination. When he didn't get it, he ended up as the vice president for the next eight years. But and that's an interesting story because my wife arrives with a six-week-old child in hand and, we're invited to dinner with the economic counselor and Barbara Bush (laughs).

James Green: Happens to be there.

Stapleton Roy: My wife fell asleep in the middle of the dinner (laughs) literally just out. Barbara Bush could not have been nicer. She said, "You're a mother. You go right back and go to sleep." And left a very nice impression. She was, well, when President Bush became president, one of his great desires was to visit China as president. One can understand, why you would want to do that. So, when he had to go to Tokyo in connections for the funeral of the Emperor of Japan who had died, he decided to add on a trip to, and at that time I was still the deputy assistant secretary for China. So, I went on the trip to Tokyo and then on to China.

And Reagan had established the tradition that when you visited an authoritarian government system that you made some gesture toward the opposition elements. And so, the question was how to handle that. And, the big figure at the time was Fang Lizhi, who was the physicist, and we thought that it would be unduly provocative for the President to meet with Fang at the Ambassador's residence. That would a high-profile event. But the President was hosting a dinner for 500 people. So, we decided to include him on the guest list.

James Green: At a hotel. Not at a residence.

Stapleton Roy: At a hotel, not at the residence.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And there would be no particular meeting with the President. He would just be there as a guest. That was unacc- Deng had a thing about Fang Lizhi. So, they physically prevented him from attending the dinner. And, when I went back to Washington, I had a regular, every two weeks I would have a lunch with the DCM at the Chinese Embassy, just to go over things. It was useful for him; it was useful for me. And I mentioned this. I said, I expressed bafflement. I said, “we were trying to handle this in a low-key fashion, and you turned it into a worldwide news story by refusing to let the Fang Lizhi attend the banquet.” I said, “I don't understand.” And he said, “you don't understand how volatile the situation in China is.” And the word volatile stuck in my mind because our, we were perplexed, this must have been after the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had already begun.

Stapleton Roy: Bush went at the end of February, demonstrations began in March, April.

James Green: This is 1989.

Stapleton Roy: This is 1989. But I shared this conversation with all of the top China specialists in Washington at the time.

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And all of them refused to accept volatile as an accurate reflection of the situation in China. So, when the Tiananmen events occurred and revealed the deep split in the Politburo at the very top, this is what we had not been aware of. In other words, we knew that Li Peng and, and Zhao Ziyang had different views on various things, but we didn't realize that, how deep the split was.

James Green: Wow.

Stapleton Roy: So, it was a, that's a way of responding to this question of, we, in the run up to Tiananmen, the June four, events, we did not have an accurate picture. Although we, there were some things that we didn't understand. We didn't understand why the students had not been removed from Tiananmen Square. Because the reason the world press media was all in Beijing was for the visit by Gorbachev. And our assumption was they would clear out Tiananmen before the, before-

James Green: The General Secretary-

Stapleton Roy: ...Gorbachev visit. When they didn't do that, it didn't make sense. And so, we were puzzling over why, and we didn't have this inner information about the depth of the dispute between the Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng on this question.

James Green: You've just had a lot of experience dealing with all sorts of Chinese officials and under-

Stapleton Roy: Yeah.

James Green: ...non-officials at different levels. In your experience, what sort of interactions end up producing a result that is positive for both sides? There is a kind of balance between some Chinese officials are a bit more stiff and formal. Others are a bit more, kind of, friendly. Is there a different kind of Chinese official that makes a difference? Is public versus private work? How would you kind of characterize in a kind of big picture way what, what sort of works in conveying a US message and getting some movement on a policy issue that, that matters?

Stapleton Roy: Any Ambassador looks for somebody on the other side who is interested in solving problems. If you can find somebody, even though that person faithfully represents the views of the government that he represents, but if they're interested in working toward a solution, then you have something you can work with.

The second thing is, I find that preaching to people, despite my missionary background, is the worst possible way to deal with people. So, you have to look for a way of presenting an issue so that it won't, be counter-productive.

I'll give you an example. When the Carter administr- Clinton administration came in they decided to link most favored nation treatment to China to seven areas of human rights. And the language was that there had to fundamental progress in one year in these seven areas of human rights, for us to be willing to continue most favored nation treatment for China. Well I had to make a demarche on this question. And the real problem was to avoid being thrown out of the office because this was, this, this was not something most governments would take.

So, the approach I took was, I went in and saw a Vice Minister, and I said, I have an important message and I said we can look at it negatively or positively. I said the, the negative is we're setting some criteria on things like this. I said, the positive thing is we now know what the US government position is-

James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stapleton Roy: And so, we can start to figure out how to deal with the problem. I said, when we didn't know all we knew was that some bombshell was out there that was going to explode.

James Green: Right.

Stapleton Roy: So, I said, my own judgment is that looking on this as clarifying for us what we need to address, that's useful for us. It produced us a one-minute silence (laughs) and they ended up agreeing to talk to us on it.

James Green: Ambassador J Stapleton Roy - speaking with me from Washington, DC. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University.I’m your host, James Green.