Darryl Johnson: Peace Corps Volunteer, Ambassador, One of Nixon's "China Boys." (Mar. 29, 2012)
Ambassador Darryl Johnson’s name first came to me when I was writing the book “Connecting Washington and China—the Story of the Washington State China Relations Council.” He appeared in the book as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs invited to speak to the Council on the American spy plane incident in China. Last time I saw him was in early March at an event in Seattle commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China. He was mentioned as one of Nixon’s “China Boys” by Nicholas Platt, author of the book of the same title. You can see why I wanted to interview him.
Even though Darryl Johnson, whose Chinese name is 张戴友, served in a number of countries in his 40 plus years of Foreign Service, including Thailand where he was the ambassador, more than half of those years he worked as a China specialist, from Hong Kong to Beijing to Taiwan to Washington D.C. He was always at the forefront of the U.S.-China relations, analyzing Lin Biao's fall from Hong Kong or handling the Hainan crisis in D.C. But let's start from the very beginning.
Part 1. From Chicago to Seattle to Hong Kong
Wen: So you were born in Chicago, but grew up in Seattle. Did your family move here? What was one most memorable event in your boyhood years here?
Amb. Johnson: First of all, my father was an airline pilot for United and the company was headquartered in Chicago. He was from here and my mother was also from here. He was temporarily assigned to work in Chicago, where I was born. My younger brother was also born in Chicago. When I was about 5 or 6, we moved out here to the Seattle area. My father flew from Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and so forth. This was home. I started grade school here at 6 and went all the way through junior high and high school in this area, Highline High School in the area to the south of Seattle. It was then the biggest high school in the state. But shortly after I was there, they built four other high schools. It was still one Highline district, but there were four schools.
Wen: You went to UW and graduated in 1960 with a BA in English Literature. How or why did you choose that major?
Amb. Johnson: When I first went to college, I went to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. I knew some people who had gone there. It seemed like it was a good small school, a place where I could get to know people more easily than at a big school. I went there for two years. After that, I thought I needed something more challenging. I thought coming to the UW would be challenging and it was. By that time I had also pretty much decided that I wanted to be an English major because my favorite professor at the Puget Sound was an English professor and he was very challenging. In fact, I remember quaking and shaking getting ready to go to class for the first time. One of my friends said nobody gets above a D in his class.
Wen: Did you?
Amb. Johnson:Yes, I got a B in my first paper, and never got below that. I thought that was a big success. He was such an exciting teacher, introducing us to so many wonderful writers as well as great ideas. It was really an eye-opening experience to go to class with him almost everyday.
The other area I concentrated in was music. I was involved in music all the time, grade school, middle school, high school and university. I had a deep interest in music, a genuine devotion. In that sense, it was like literature, too, because literature exposes you to big ideas and big opportunities. Music was the same way. At the U. of Washington I played in the marching band and sang in the madrigal group.
Wen: You then went to study at the University of Minnesota and Princeton University. What did you study in those two schools? Did you decide then you wanted to go into Foreign Service?
Amb. Johnson: I had never been to an embassy and didn’t know anything about foreign affairs when I was in college. The reason I went to Minnesota was that they had a very good English department, several famous professors, including one named Allen Tate who was a poet. In my one year there, I became interested in specializing more. If I was going into academia, then I felt I needed to have more credentials and more experience. So I applied to Princeton for my second year of graduate school and was accepted. It was a very different program, different from Minnesota, different from Washington. There was a lot to learn, much of it involving academic research.
At the end of the year at Princeton, I decided maybe this is not the way I want to spend the rest of my life. So I interviewed for some jobs in New York and other places and became somewhat interested in foreign affairs at that point. There was a man in my class who had been an intern at the embassy in Paris the previous summer. He had a lot of information about applying for the Foreign Service. So I said, let’s give this a chance. I sent in the application materials and signed up to take the exam in the fall of 1962.
Wen: How did your Peace Corps stint in Thailand come about? Did that start you on your career path in Foreign Service?
Amb. Johnson: Let’s back up the clock a little bit. I was at Princeton for the school year 1961-62. In the summer in 1962 was the Seattle World’s Fair. Many visitors came. I went out to the Fair and walked around several times. There was a booth for the Peace Corps. There were forms to fill out if you were interested in being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Actually, one friend who had been my roommate in Minnesota had already applied for the Peace Corps and was sent to Malaysia. When I got the application forms, I didn’t specify where I wanted to go. I just filled out the forms and said I would go wherever you want to send me. At the same time, I filled out the forms for the Foreign Service. Peace Corps responded much more quickly, within a month, and said, yes, there was a position available, the destination would be Thailand, and the training would take place at the University of Washington.
So I was in Peace Corps training program for a about month when I received a letter from the State Department saying that I had passed the Foreign Service written exam, which was a big surprise, because the test was the hardest test I had even taken by far. So when I got this letter from the State Department, I was amazed, really. Then came the oral exam, two months later. The Department would send people around to interview the candidates. I was still in Peace Corps training at that point here. I got a notice that these people would be at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle on such and such a date in January 1963. So I took a day off from my Peace Corps training and went down there. There were three of them and one of me, and the interview took nearly two hours.
At the end, they said if you are successful here today, would you choose to go into the Foreign Service or continue with the Peace Corps. I said I would continue with the Peace Corps because I was already half way through the training program and thought it was an obligation. I also thought my experience in the Peace Corps would be different than in the Foreign Service. I guess that was the right answer because they then had me wait outside for about twenty minutes or so, then came out and said that I had passed.
Wen: I read that your first assignment was Bombay, India, but you wanted to specialize in China. You got to study Chinese in Taiwan and then assigned to Hong Kong as a consular officer in 1969. How did you come to want to specialize in China that early and in your twenties?
Amb. Johnson: The real reason was that having lived in Thailand for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in a public school at the provincial level, I realized that the two great cultural influences in Asia were China to the north and India to the west. I wanted to be involved with issues involving those countries. I thought they were extremely important. This is because in Southeast Asia, you get both. You get a big influence from China and a big influence from India. It was important to understand how these societies operated, their history, their literature, their culture, the whole range of society. Although at that point I said I wanted to study Chinese, I also recognized that I needed some other experience. So I asked for South Asia on my first assignment, originally for Nepal, for Kathmandu. But there was no position opening there so they assigned me to Bombay, India, which was a very good assignment. It was big enough to include all of the main functions of a foreign mission, but small enough that we all knew each other well.
Towards the end of my second year in India, I wrote back to a friend in Washington who worked on Chinese affairs and said I would like to study Chinese. He wrote back and said lots of people were applying -- many more applicants than positions. So it was very competitive. But not long afterwards, I got a message from Washington saying that I had been selected for Chinese language training followed by assignment to the Consulate General in Hong Kong. I left Bombay just before Christmas 1967.
I studied in Washington for the calendar year 1968, then went to Taiwan for the second year. The school was in Taichung and was called the Huayu Xuexiao. It was a branch of the embassy. The office in Taiwan was still called an embassy. The country was, of course, called the Republic of China. Studying in Taichung was an excellent experience. Everybody spoke Chinese. The environment was completely Chinese. There was no English language spoken there. So that was exciting and demanding. My Chinese was not great, but it was OK. I completed my language training in the latter part of 1969 and then went to Hong Kong.
Part 2. A China Career Through Decades and Highs and Lows
Wen: In 1969, when you arrived in Hong Kong, China was still deep in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, for instance, as a teenager went to work in the countryside that year. By the time you assignment there ended in 1973, President Nixon had already visited China, and liaison offices on both sides had already opened. Could you talk a little bit about your work in Hong Kong in those intriguing years?
Amb. Johnson: Hong Kong was the most important reporting post for what was going on in China because we had no American officials in China. We did have friends in China, the British were there, the French were there, and the Canadians were there at a certain point. Many of the people from Europe were there. So when they came to Hong Kong, which they often did, we would try to have lunch with them or have a little meeting with them to get their impression of what was going on in mainland China. In addition, there were a lot people in Hong Kong who had business interests in China and who had family in China. There was a lot of to and fro. Hong Kong was a good place to watch what was going on in China.
As you correctly pointed out, the internal scene within the Beijing leadership was very chaotic. It was almost anarchistic in a sense because the Cultural Revolution destroyed the traditional culture. It was the opposite of a positive change in terms of Chinese culture. It was the opposite of trying to encourage people to develop their economy, their society, their education and so forth. So it was a very destructive period, and even now, 50 years later, we don’t have clear information on how many people died in the Cultural Revolution, but it was a lot, because of famine, because of political persecution, because of internal conflict, whatever. So it was a traumatic time to be there. Looking at it from Hong Kong, we could only estimate the degree of disruption. We certainly did not suffer, but we could try to understand what was going on and we could read what others wrote. We paid close attention.
My first job in Hong Kong was in the China Mainland Section, which had about 9 or 10 officers there. My specific responsibility was to report on China’s external economic activities. That meant banking, foreign assistance, trade, anything that had to do with international finances that they were involved in. That was my job, to report. The PRC itself never reported in those days. We had to get information from other countries. We would get information from Japan, for example, reporting on their trade with China, or from Germany, or India, or Pakistan, even Hong Kong. My job was to write all of this down, to see trends or changes, economic opportunities, and what they were really doing. It was a very small area. Their trade and assistance programs were very small. So that was my job for two years.
Then in the summer of 1971, I went on home leave back to the States and then came back and changed jobs, changed to the external political section. That had to do with China’s international relations, its relations with other countries, like North Korea or Romania, for example. Pakistan had very good relations with China, Albania also had close relations with China. Mostly, it was the so-called socialist countries. But the relationship with the Soviet Union was terrible at that time. It wasn’t just that they were not part of the same group, they were contending against each other. I remember in 1969 there was an incident on the Ussuri River regarding an island called Zhenbao Dao in Chinese or Damansky Island in Russian. They were really fighting. This was a real war, people were killed. It was a reflection of the kind of internal chaos going on in China. They didn’t have any leadership or any clear direction, with major divisions in the society and in the leadership. And they had virtually no friends when they were facing Moscow.
To back up a bit, in the spring of 1971, the US ping-pong team was invited to visit China following the international championships in Japan. This was the beginning of a major shift in China’s foreign policy – and ours.
So this brings us to the summer of 1971. I had been on home leave and I came back in August of ‘71. Soon after I got back, we discovered that there were some very unusual events going on in the mainland involving senior leaders. We couldn’t tell what it was, but we knew it was a big leadership crisis. For example, there was a new issue of the book of Mao sayings, the Little Red Book, which was published and available in Hong Kong. But we soon found out that it was not available in Guangzhou. It had been taken off the shelves throughout the PRC. This new issue had a cover page with a few words by Lin Biao, the #2 person in the PRC leadership. Lin’s words were all about how Mao was such a great leader, but it was Lin Biao’s picture and Lin Biao’s words, together with Mao’s. A few days later we learned that preparations for the celebration of PRC National Day on October 1 had been halted. There were also reports that many civilian flights had been grounded at that time.
With these events as background, my boss wrote one of the best examples of Foreign Service reporting I have ever seen. It was called “The Fall of Lin Biao.” But he did not send it right away because we were still not certain who was acting against whom. So he waited for four or five days because we knew that Mao Zedong or Lin Biao would be receiving an important visitor, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, who was coming for a visit in early October. On the sixth of October, Haile Selassie arrived and was immediately shown shaking hands with Chairman Mao. So we said, “Aha, that means Mao is still alive and in power;” so Mao is OK, but Lin Biao is gone. That was why the title of the report was “The Fall of Lin Biao.” We knew it was either Mao or Lin because it was so dramatic, such a big deal. So it was Lin Biao who fell, and his fall represented a fundamental change in the internal politics of China. Liu Shaoqi, who had served as head of state in the 1960s, had already been purged at that point.
Not coincidentally, it was around that time that the opening to the U.S. began to take shape. It was in June/July of 1971 when President Nixon sent his National Security Adviser, Dr. Henry Kissinger, to Beijing to try to open a new page in the US-China relationship. Kissinger’s secret trip followed the ping-pong event, and paved the way for the visit by President Nixon in 1972.
Those of us working in Hong Kong were not directly involved in these events, but we were eager observers. So in 1971 we had ping pong in the spring, we had Kissinger’s trip in the summer, the fall of Lin Biao in September. Then in early ‘72, February of ’72, President Nixon visited China, and we watched the big breakthrough, Nixon shaking hands with Mao Zedong, shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, really creating a new atmosphere for the U.S.-China relationship that has lasted ever since in some ways.
Incidentally, another important external event took place in the fall of 1971, the admission of the PRC to the United Nations, and the withdrawal of the Republic of China from all UN bodies. We did not support the resolution to admit China to the UN, but we also did not act to prevent that outcome.
Wen: In 1979, when the U.S. and China normalized their diplomatic relations, you were the China Desk Officer at the State Department. That was a very exciting year in both countries. First Vice President Deng Xiaoping came to visit, and to Seattle, too. Then Vice President Walter Mondale went to China. In fact I was a local foreign affairs staffer in China and worked for his delegation. What was your work like that year?
Amb. Johnson: After my assignment in Moscow from 1974-1977, I came back to Washington to work first on the Yugoslav desk, in charge of Yugoslav affairs from 77-79. The main event during my time in that position was the last State Visit by President Tito to the US. Such an important event generated a mountain of work for about three months. Everyone wanted to be a part of Tito’s visit!
I then moved to the China desk in the summer of 1979, June or July. Even though my job was called “desk officer,” there was a director and a deputy director above me. Mine was the political side and I had a counterpart who was the economic officer for China. The office director was Chas Freeman, whose Chinese was excellent. He was the best language officer we ever had out of Taichung. He was the senior State Department interpreter for Nixon’s delegation in 1972. By 1979, we had already normalized diplomatic relations. In fact I was at the home of the Yugoslav political counselor in December of 1978 when President Carter announced the normalization of relations and the visit by Deng Xiaoping in January of 1979.
Wen: In 1984, when President Reagan visited Beijing, you were consular officer there. He also went to my hometown Xian to see the terracotta warriors. Could you tell readers a little bit about your work there at the Embassy?
Amb. Johnson: Yes, but I was not there yet when President Reagan came. Reagan came in April of 1984, but I did not get there until August of that year.
I was going to back up to 1979. When I came to the China desk in 1979, the first big event we had was Mondale’s visit. We prepared a very big briefing book for Mondale, with lots of issues, lots of biographic data, lots of schedules -- Mondale was a very hard worker. He took that big book home one weekend and read the whole thing in two days. Then he came back to us and said, OK I have a question on this and a question on that. We thought we were doing such a good job by getting the book done early, but we ended up having to do it twice because he had so many good questions. So we had to go back and rewrite/update the whole exercise. But because he was so thorough, Mondale did a very good job. He went to Xian, as you indicated. He also went to Guangzhou. One of the things he did was to open -- to cut the ribbons for the Consulate General in Guangzhou.
In those intervening years I had several other jobs in Washington. For example in 1981-83, I worked for the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Lawrence Eagleburger. He was very influential and great to work for. He had been Ambassador to Yugoslavia when I was the Yugoslav desk officer. I used to talk with him all the time. Sometimes when he would come back to Washington, we would meet. It was a very close relationship. So when he later became Under Secretary, he asked me to be his Special Assistant for East Asia and Eastern Europe. I was one of four who were called special assistants. My job was to make sure he knew everything he needed to know about East Asia and Eastern Europe.
I finished my work with Mr. Eagleburger in the spring of ‘84 and prepared to go to Beijing as Political Counselor. I got there on or about the first of August. We had lots of work in that office, partly because of Reagan’s visit, but also because so much was going on, academic exchanges, science exchanges, trade exchanges. It was a very busy time. I remember we started some student exchanges. We had a program called the International Visitors Program where we selected people who were young and talented and interested to visit the States for a month. They had home stays and family stays and visited big cities and small farms and so forth. Part of my job in the political section was to choose those young candidates. We would send probably 40-50 Chinese young people per year, usually from a government ministry, or the Party, or from an academic background, to visit the States for a month. They just loved it. They really had such a great time visiting the U.S. and learning about things here and found out it that the US was not the way it was pictured in Mao’s book and other such materials.
We had a number of visitors during that time. Secretary of State George Schultz came to China, for instance, and had a very interesting meeting with a lot of American business people who were not happy about the working conditions or labor conditions or business conditions. I remember him saying one time, “Well if it is so hard, why don’t you leave?” But, of course, that was not what happened. Everybody just kept coming to China in ever greater numbers.
The Ambassador when I got there was Arthur Hummel, who was a long time China specialist, dating back to the 30s when he had been a young man in China and grew up there. He really understood well what the climate was like. He gave such great briefings that visitor always went away understanding much more than they did when they started.
In Beijing I was the Political Counselor. You have the Ambassador, you have the number two, called the Deputy Chief of Mission. And the number three position was usually the Political Counselor or sometimes the Economic Counselor. In Beijing when I got there, it was the Econ Counselor who was the acting number two because the DCM was out of town. Then the acting DCM left, and I was the next senior person after that. After Ambassador Hummel left, Ambassador Winston Lord was supposed to be coming in the fall of 1985. But he was held up in Washington by Sen. Helms, who didn’t like China and didn’t like Winston Lord. So he just put up a “hold” on Lord’s confirmation. The result was that we had a visit by then Vice President George Bush, Bush Senior, without having an ambassador in place. Bush came to visit in October 1985. He was there for about a week, and I was responsible for that visit. I went to Xian with him where we saw the terracotta soldiers, and he opened the new Consulate General in Chengdu. He also had some very good meetings in Beijing. Bush was very popular in Beijing because he had been the head of the US liaison office there back in the 70s. He was not “ambassador,” but was equivalent to an ambassador at that time. So he was well respected and well liked. He was Vice President in 1985, and this visit was a big deal for both countries.
Wen: Taiwan was a major issue when the United States and China negotiated for the normalization. You were the director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1996-99. In 1998, President Clinton stated in Shanghai the Three No’s towards Taiwan, which some criticized, namely, no support of Taiwan independence; no support of two Chinas or one China one Taiwan; and no support for Taiwan membership in international organizations requiring statehood. And then in 1999, Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s President, came out with his controversial “State-to-State” theory for the Taiwan and mainland relations. It was reported that you had a 40-minute meeting with Lee. Could you tell us a little bit about that meeting, and also your reaction to President Clinton’s Three No’s at the time?
Amb. Johnson: OK. First the Three No’s. I frankly didn’t think it was very important because we had already said all that, dating back to the Nixon visit. We were against Taiwan independence, we were against the formal separation of Taiwan from the mainland. And we were against Taiwan being a part of international organizations for which statehood was a requirement. I did have to learn those, the Three No’s. But basically, what President Clinton was doing was re-stating what we had already said. This was not a new policy. And re-stating it publically did not mean we had any change in the relationship when he said that. But it was important to clear the air. President Nixon actually had said something very similar back in the time when he was negotiating the Shanghai Communiqué during his first trip to China. There are lots of things like that issue that get overblown.
As far as my meeting with Lee Teng-hui, I used to see President Lee frequently. I played golf with him several times and saw him on social occasions. We always got along fine. But there was a bit of a flap during the last week I was there, in 1999. I had gone out on a Sunday to play golf with some Taiwan officials. When I got in the car to go back to my residence, the driver asked whether I had heard what President Lee said. I asked what President Lee had said. The driver said that Lee had given an interview in which he talked about “equal” relations between the two entities across the Strait. So I said, hm, I’d better find out what this is about. So I got the full text of Lee’s interview shortly after that and I was troubled by his comments.
I was leaving Taiwan the following Wednesday. So when I went to pay my farewell call on Lee on Tuesday of that week, I think, the first thing I did was to convey some talking points and questions from the State Department in Washington seeking to clarify Lee’s words. One question/comment was to ask what the jurisdiction was of “the Republic of China;” what was the entity that President Lee represented. Was it Taiwan? Was it something else? Was it the “Republic of China,” or was it all of China? So I asked these questions. When I asked him about this, I used a map of the Republic of China, because the Taiwan authorities every year would put out a map of the Republic of China as a part of their annual review. So I had a copy of this map in this book and asked whether that map represented the Republic of China? He said, No, no. That does not reflect today’s reality. It’s different; things have changed. Then I recalled when I had first met him back in 1996. We had talked about Cross Strait relations, and I had asked him then when did he think it would be time for a change, a significant change. He said, Oh, not yet; it’s too soon. We need about thirty years for mainland China to catch up, to develop democracy, to learn international relations and so forth. So we are not in a hurry. Then in this last meeting I had with him in 1999, I raised the same point. I said, Three years ago, you thought it would take about thirty years before things would change on the mainland and in the cross-Strait relationship. So that was three years ago, so that leaves about twenty-seven more years? He said, No, no. I didn’t mean that; that was just a figure of speech. It will take many more years before the mainland is ready for real dialogue.
Wen: So did he explain his “State-to-State” relations? China didn’t really like it.
Amb. Johnson: No, because that implies separateness and the formal recognition of these two separate entities. Of course the United States didn’t recognize Taiwan as the government of China. Neither did Japan. Neither did most other countries. So what we did was to find a way to operate and to work with the people of Taiwan and the authorities of Taiwan in a way that would serve our interests and their interests in trade and economic relations, education, and so forth. So we had a very practical arrangement. But it was very delicate also. We had to maintain this arrangement whereby the Taiwan authorities were not claiming to be the government of all of China, or the government of Taiwan or the government of some other entity that we didn’t recognize. So that was the way it worked out. Basically they could say what they wanted, but we would react whenever there was something that implied a change of the official status. We didn’t support a change of status. We supported the status quo, at the time and before and after.
Let me go back a little bit. When I came to Taiwan in1996, it was in a period of a great crisis in Cross-Strait relations, because Lee Teng-hui had come to the States to Cornell University, his alma mater, and had given a speech in which he talked about “the Republic of China on Taiwan” seventeen times. Of course, the PRC was very unhappy and we were unhappy because we felt that was not the understanding. We understood that Lee was not going to make a big political speech here. But he was running for president and elections were coming up. So the mainland reacted by setting off missiles -- so-called tests -- off the northern part of the island and the southern part of the island in order to show President Lee and others that they could exercise their missiles if they needed to. Of course, we weren’t happy about that as well. We made it clear that we would not stand idly by if there was a direct conflict between Taiwan and the mainland. We would almost certainly have to be involved. So we urged that there not be any such confrontation and that both sides should back away from the issue. To underscore the point, President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the east side of Taiwan in order to demonstrate that we were prepared to use force if necessary. So it there was high tension in the spring of 1996. I got there in August 96, so there was still a lot of tension. But it had relaxed some. Basically it was the question of what you call Taiwan, what was the entity, what was the name. It didn’t come up again until my last few days there. It didn’t come up until Lee Teng-hui again referred to equal parties, equal entities on both sides of the Strait. I think he also said “sovereign,” or something like that. He referred to separate entities on both sides, which we and most other countries did not recognize.
Wen: From 2000-02, you were Deputy Asst. Secy. for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. It was President Bush now in the White House. There were some memorable moments under him, especially in the spring of 2001. There was the American spy plane crash-landing in Hainan, China. It was the spy plane you talked about to the China Council here in Seattle that year. So how did you work through that tense spring in U.S.-China relations?
Amb. Johnson: Once we resolved it, it wasn’t a continuing problem. I can tell you quickly about the main events of those dramatic few days. It was on the first of April, a Sunday in China Saturday night in DC. I was actually at home watching a basketball game, and I got a call saying the Secretary would like me to come in to read something we had received. So I got in my car and go in and that’s what had happened. At eight in the morning in Hainan Island a Chinese fighter plane had run into a US reconnaissance plane, called an EP-3. Our plane had spun out of control but the pilot had amazingly managed to regain control and to land at the PRC naval base on Hainan Island. The plane was so damaged it would never fly again. The radar in the front was broken. Two of the engines were broken. It was amazing that they didn’t crash and kill everyone on board. I have often thought about the effect such a disaster would have had on our relationship at that time. Sometimes miracles happen, and this was truly a miracle. Another thing was they were flying at 24,000 feet. After the incident, they fell 8,000 feet, completely out of control. Finally the pilot was able to re-establish control and bring the plane to a level plane and was able to take the plane and landed it in the naval base.
Afterwards there was much debate about our plane having landed without permission; we said yea, they might have been without explicit permission, but the international rules of aviation and shipping are such that in an emergency, such a vessel has the right to override any local consideration. So as far as we know, the EP-3 had sent out the emergency SOS notice that they were in distress and needed to land. We never got a reply from the Chinese base. We thought we had operated according to international law. Another key factor was that the airplane was not within Chinese air space. The never claimed that it was. But they did say that it was over China’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the EEZ, which was a provision of the Law of the Sea (LOS) Treaty. And that’s true, it was over their EEZ. But the EEZ language in the treaty says that other countries can operate in the EEZ so long as the vessels are not attacking. Even naval vessels are permitted to cross through another country’s EEZ provided that their action was part of an “innocent passage.” So naval ships can pass through the economic zone so long as they are outside the Twelve-Mile limit of territorial waters. The former Soviet Union used to do it all the time. They would approach close to our borders in Alaska or elsewhere, and we would sometimes approach more closely to theirs. But it was never a threat. There was never going to be a serious military action as a result of that because both sides understood the roles of the road.
Then we negotiated, starting that day. We actually tried to have a conversation on the first day, that Sunday. But nobody was home on the Chinese side -- literally. We learned later that all or most of the senior leaders were participating in Arbor Day and were out planting trees that day! Our ambassador at the time was Joseph Prueher, who himself was a navy pilot by profession. It was a remarkable coincidence that we had a navy pilot as our ambassador at exactly the moment when we needed someone who understood about the navy and about airplanes. That was amazing. The political counselor who went with Prueher on his calls on PRC officials was James Moriarty who was later ambassador to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He and Prueher were the ones who really were carrying the load, carrying the messages in Beijing. They would finish their work one day, then sent us their message. Of course there was a difference of 12 hours in the time. So if they got their report done by say 4 or 5 in the afternoon, we would get it before opening of business the next day, our time. If there was something urgent in the negotiations, they would call, and we would take the call in the middle of the night.
The first night I was at the State Department the whole night, reading the news and reading the reporting and so forth. After that we did shifts so that both ends of the communication link were operating almost around the clock. They would do their report, we would read the report and would prepare the response. When we sent the response, Prueher and Moriarty would use that as the basis for their discussions in Beijing. The last person to clear on our side was Secretary Powell. He was then Secretary of State. He was the person primarily in charge at the Cabinet level. Of course, the President was in charge, ultimately, and he was actively interested in how we handled this issue. But for most of the time, it was Powell who was really our supervisor, my supervisor.
My job was to bring together people from different agencies who had an interest in this case. There was the Pentagon, the Treasury Department because of money issue involved, the National Security Council, somebody from the White House, somebody from CIA. So there were seven or eight people. We would have a meeting every morning at 11 am for about one hour. We would talk about what was happening in Hainan in terms of access to the crew. We wanted to be able to talk to them. The first day, they didn’t let us talk to them. The second day they didn’t either. Finally on the third day, we were able to get permission to talk to them, and they were in adequate condition. But one of the factors that complicated the negotiations was that Jiang Zemin, the PRC Chief of State, was traveling in Argentina, Peru and Chile. We were trying to contact him through Qian Qichen, the former Foreign Minister. It was difficult for us to get in touch with them. So nothing really happened during that three-day, four-day period. After they finally got back in Beijing, things started to change. We moved it along and they seemed to want to get it resolved. So the whole episode from the time of the incident took eleven days.
Wen: 11 days. And you worked through the night sometimes in those 11 days?
Amb. Johnson: Yes. 11 days. It was dramatic.
You know, we had a feeling, I had a feeling and I think Powell did, too, that once we got past the first day, once it was clear that there wasn’t going to be any action taken against the crew, or against the plane, that the incident would be resolved and the crew would be released. It was a question of how, not whether. So we were confident that we would be able to resolve this issue in a way that was satisfactory. And we did, by carefully drafting a letter from Ambassador Prueher to the Foreign Minister saying that we regretted that the Chinese side had evidently not received our distress signal, and we regretted that the Chinese pilot had been lost. Powell called it “the letter of the two “sorries.” This episode was the front-page story in the Washington Post and the New York Times and in virtually every American media outlet. It was portrayed as the first real foreign policy test for the new Bush administration. And it was a success. President Bush considered that it was a success and Secretary Powell thought it was a success. We agreed.
Part 3. On Current Development of U.S.-China Relations
Wen: 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China. Vice President Xi Jinping came to visit in February. What do you think of his visit, just a get-to-know-you tour or substantial in anyway in the bilateral relations?
Amb. Johnson: I think both. I think it is symbolic because he is the number two man evidently about to become number one in the next few months. I think for him to spend time and energy to learn about the United States and learn the issues that are important in the relationship signifies that he is going to be serious and that he is a serious-minded person. Therefore, the more he knows and understands, the better for us, the better for him, better for China, better for both countries. So I think from this standpoint, the visit was a big plus. Of course, he was visiting in response to the earlier visit to China by Vice President Biden, who was also very well treated in China and was hosted very elegantly and was received as a great dignitary, a great man. So I think from that standpoint, it was important as a symbolic event, it was important for substance and it was important for the future. The future means, what is going through Mr. Xi’s head during his visit, what does he know about America. If some issue comes up, something about North Korea, for instance, who does he talk to. Well, maybe Mr. Biden. He knows him and met him. So it gives him an opportunity to use that channel, that point of connection. Of course, there are lots of ways of dealing with these issues. But when you get a relationship between the two biggest powers in the world, they have to trust each other, there has to be an element of trust. I think that is part of the point in having these meetings.
Wen: The Chinese leadership always emphasizes stability and harmony. But the recent downfall of Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and his police chief’s overnight visit to the American Consulate in Chengdu showed otherwise. What do you think of this development in terms of China’s relations with the U.S., especially concerning the Chengdu Consulate episode?
Amb. Johnson: I don’t see anything remarkable about the Chengdu Consulate episode except the fact that this man was a high official. The person who came and knocked on the door and wanted to come in and talk to somebody was a high official from Chongqing. The main point is that this is an internal political debate in China. It’s not something we stimulated or made happen. I think Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang, the police chief, got into some hot water and were looking for some way to alleviate it. There are so many things that are interesting and complex in Chinese politics that I really hesitate to… as I talked about Lin Biao earlier. That was similar. This was a senior leadership conflict which had to be resolved. In this case, I think it is much the same way. The action these officials took suggests almost desperation in their need to save themselves or to save others, I don’t know. But it’s a domestic political issue primarily, and it’s not about us.
Wen: In his State of the Union this year, President Obama proposed a new Trade Enforcement Unit, especially targeting China. He said to Xi Jinping that China should follow the "same rules of the road" in the world economic system. He also said earlier that China had been very aggressive in gaming the trading system. Do you agree with Obama’s views on China’s trade practice?
Amb. Johnson: I think what the President was saying is a reflection of the depth and breadth of the relationship now; it touches on almost everything. It touches domestic politics as we were just saying. It touches trade. It touches lots of other areas in which we have common interests. I think having differences of this kind is not unusual. I think big countries tend to have differences. But they also have a way of dealing with them. That’s what diplomacy is about. You get together and you talk out your differences. Sometimes they get resolved and sometimes they don’t. I think in this case, the issue having to do with bilateral trade, and with the value of the Chinese currency is partly a response to the tremendous economic growth that China has enjoyed in recent years, and the degree to which that growth has come at some cost to American consumers.
To people who are pro-trade, more trade is better than less trade. But trade also has to be fair. It has to be handled in a way that everybody recognizes that there is a balance of benefit. It reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with an official from the US Treasury Department. I commented that it’s really unfortunate that we had this abnormal relationship. He said it was not abnormal. He said what happens is if I have a bucket of apples and you want to buy a bucket of apples, you give me some money and I give you the apples. That’s the way it works. You get the apples and I get the money. That’s trade. Does one side benefit? Does the other benefit? In fact, both benefit. That’s the way trade works. There are many variations on this theme, but China has become a major player in the international economic world. I think even five years ago, no one would have recognized that China would have come that far that fast. When the European countries get together now, when the global economic leaders get together, the Group of 20, who’s there? China is there. And recent reports indicate that China has offered to provide assistance to help resolve the European debt crisis; I mean that’s unbelievable! Of course, it’s not unbelievable now because it’s happening now.
So the short answer to your question is, of course there is a basis for the concern that President Obama articulated. But he is also smart enough to realize that what he wants are solutions, not problems. So what he was trying to do was to lay the framework for equal balance in terms of improving the US-China economic relationship.
Wen: Tibet is now literally a burning issue, with nearly 30 self-immolations by Tibetans, mostly in China. The U.S. government used to support the Tibetan guerrillas in the 1950s-60s. Recent American presidents have also invited the Dalai Lama to the White House. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has just passed a resolution calling on China to ease restrictions in Tibet. The State Department spokesperson also said that China's continued vilification of the Dalai Lama was making the situation worse. So should or could the United State do more about Tibet while recognizing Tibet as part of China?
Amb. Johnson: First of all, we do recognize Tibet as a part of China, part of the PRC. But we also have considerable sympathy for the Dalai Lama and for the people who fled with him back in the 50s and 60s and others who have continued to carry the torch for Tibet in the meantime. It’s a complex subject, of course. In a more ideal world there would be some sort of balance of interests where the Tibetan interests in some degree of autonomy -- not separateness -- and most importantly the right to practice their religion and do so in a way that is not threatening to the PRC; I think that’s the kind of outcome we need to look for.
As far as the immolations, they are of course very tragic. It’s a sensational way to gain attention. I don’t frankly believe it is a particularly effective way of getting to a political solution. But if there were a way to permit the Tibetan people to practice their religion without any interference and to enjoy the full rights and opportunities that are available to other people in the PRC these days, I think that would be a welcome change. One of the things I think is unfortunate in the Tibetan situation is that there has been such a big influx of non-Tibetans in recent years, people coming from other parts of China to settle because the business opportunities are greater. Tibetans, some of them anyway, are very unhappy about that.
On the question of the Dalai Lama, the vilification -- I read the statements, too -- comparing him to Hitler, I think it is just very unwise, very unhelpful, very hostile and totally inappropriate; it does not create the atmosphere for improvement of the relationship. I think what they need at this point is dialogue. The Dalai Lama’s cousin, or his brother, one of his close relatives anyway, has acted as an intermediary in the past. When I was in Washington, I met with one of the brothers a couple of times. At that time, they were saying that they were not lobbying for independence; they were not trying to break up the People’s Republic of China; they just wanted to be able to exercise their religion in a free manner.
It seems to me that such a dialogue, with serious efforts on both sides, shows the limits and the opportunities. But it seems that the PRC side was not prepared to discuss a political agenda. There could still be a cultural and religious agenda that would help both sides. Frankly, it is a very difficult situation, and I don’t have any near-term solution. Well, we certainly can say that all people, including Tibetans, have certain rights. Under the Chinese Constitution they have certain rights also. Part of what Tibetans are agitating for is the right to practice those rights they supposedly already have.
Wen: In your decades-long Foreign Service career, you served under Republican as well as Democrat presidents. I understand that diplomats are non-partisan. But now you are private citizen, could you now say which party do you prefer in term of U.S. China policy?
Amb. Johnson: Let me answer this with one general point and one specific point. The general point is that foreign policy is seldom a key part of our political campaigns in the US. Of course the candidates want the voters to think that they bring something unique to the contest. But in reality the differences are not large. The big exception during my career was the Vietnam War, about which there were sharp divisions in our society. The same was true to a lesser degree with the second Iraq War, and now with the Afghanistan War. In my experience, it is relatively easy to get into a war, but really difficult to get out. Despite some strong feelings among political leaders, it is not obvious to me that a different president would have taken a different road.
The specific point is that style is important, and different leaders bring different styles to the conduct of foreign policy. So, for example, President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger chose to use a very secretive style in their effort to open a new relationship with China. Nixon and Kissinger wanted the American people, and others in other countries, to admire their cleverness. It was not only a matter of opening a new arrangement with China, it was a matter of how that was done.
To broaden that second point, the Nixon breakthrough was dampened by domestic politics in the US, in particular the Watergate scandal, which prevented Nixon and Kissinger from completing the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with China. But the next administration, under President Carter, completed the job a few years later. And the policy direction has remained pretty steady since then. In fact, both the US and China have a lot invested in this relationship. And the emergence of China on the global stage has made the management of the relationship even more important. Fortunately, both sides have much to gain by managing their relationship successfully, and this is true regardless of the person or the party in the White House or in the majority in the Congress.
Wen: A "bonus" question: With all the seriousness and importance of your diplomatic work in the China field, do you have a fun, or even funny, China story to share with readers?
Amb. Johnson: Do I have a funny China story? I should have been thinking about it all this time. OK, I will tell you a funny story. This is an embarrassing funny story. The last year I was in Beijing, 1987 I guess it was, the Chinese Central Television organized a nationwide broadcast for New Year’s. They hadn’t ever had a show like this before, a big variety show you know, singers and dancers, fireworks and cartoons. I was singing then in a group of four men called a Barbershop Quartet. So they invited us to come and sing on this television show. There were four of us and there were 1.4 billion Chinese watching! One of our group was also at the American Embassy, and two were from the UK. We sang one song called Coney Island Baby, and Seventy-Six Trombones and several other tunes.
But the funny part of it was a sort of game carried out by the master of ceremonies, a British guy. At a certain point he said OK let’s play a little game here. Looking at me, he says, I want you to avoid saying the word “yes” to anything that I ask you. Do you understand? I said yes. Aha! Bzeeeee! OK I want to make sure you really understand that this is a game commonly played in television in Britain. So let’s try again. Did you understand what I just said? I said yes. Bzeeee! Finally it happened the third time, and he said I was a failure. Three times out of three. The next day I was walking down the street some place, I think it was near the Beijing Hotel, and a couple of Chinese people started pointing at me and laughing. That was a real embarrassment.
Wen: Thank you so much, Ambassador Johnson.