Despite national tensions, Seattle-China ties are strong

Seattle, long linked to the development of modern China, hears from a visiting scholar on the life of China's most important leader, Deng Xiaoping.

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Deng Xiaoping with Jimmy Carter during a 1979 trip to the United States that included a visit to Seattle.

Seattle, long linked to the development of modern China, hears from a visiting scholar on the life of China's most important leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The Puget Sound area has had a long relationship with modern, emerging China. In the spring of 1979, the Liu Lin Hai steamed into Elliott Bay, making Seattle the first port of call for a Chinese merchant ship in 30 years of estrangement that followed the Communist revolution. The Boeing Company began selling airplanes to China shortly after President Nixon’s historic trip there in 1972 and today there are more Boeing jets flying in China than any other maker.

One measure of the magnitude of the area’s relationship with China comes from trade figures. In 1978, trade between Washington and China was valued at $49.8 million. In 2010, total two-way trade was more than $20 billion. “Washington has developed the country’s strongest reciprocal relationship with China,” said Joe Borich, head of the Washington State China Relations Council. In a recent report, he noted that Washington’s exports to China grew by approximately 440 percent from 2000-2010. In 1979, the China Relations Council was formed, becoming one of the most effective organizations of its kind in the country.

And the connections continue to be made. Just last month, the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, along with the China Relations Council, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade Beijing. The CCPIT Beijing is a government-supported, non-profit institution that promotes foreign trade and investment and has over 4,000 existing member enterprises. The Trade Alliance said the agreement means the two organizations will continue to develop trade and investment partnerships in China that will lead to further opportunities for business cooperation here in Greater Seattle.

With those kinds of connections, an expert on China and its history is well received here. Such was the case with the appearance here at Town Hall Monday night of Ezra F. Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard University and the author of books on Japan, China and Asia.

Vogel has written a new book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Deng, Vogel said in an interview while in Seattle, is the Chinese leader most responsible for China’s remarkable rise, and thus for today’s geopolitical landscape.

Vogel said he spent more than 10 years researching the book and believes that he knows Deng and his place in history as well as anyone. Deng served as “paramount leader” of China from 1978 to 1992. He continued to influence Chinese politics — especially a famous 1992 visit to South China after his “retirement” that helped cement the movement of growth and a market economy that he started. Deng died in early 1997 from a lung infection and Parkinson's disease.

Vogel is unabashedly positive about Deng’s place in history. “History will see him as an extraordinary person,” Vogel said. “No one had the impact on so many people that he did. My book is a breakthrough in understanding Deng and what he did, what he accomplished. Who did the most to raise the standard of living? It’s Deng.”

It is very hard to quantify the growth in China. There really is not a word to describe it. Extraordinary. Unprecedented. Fabulous. Incredible. Unbelievable. They all apply. Vogel, who still lives near the Harvard campus in Boston, noted that Boston took five years to extend its subway line five stops. “In places like Shanghai, they were adding entire subway lines in a year,” he said.

Deng is credited with moving China forward after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution — Deng’s son was crippled during the chaos, Vogel said. But Vogel said his research shows that Deng was not so much the idea man as the ultimate manager, the person who could navigate China’s politics and make things work. He said many leaders in China were more ready for reforms after Mao Tse-tung than originally thought.

“In 1978, if anyone was asked if economic growth could come from other than a capitalist country, no one would have said that,” Vogel said. “Yet China has grown at about 10 percent a year for 30 years.” He said Deng was a strong socialist, who believed that markets could work as well in a socialist system as in a capitalist system. History seems to have proved his belief to be true.

There is one incident during Deng’s time in power that overshadows all: Tiananmen Square and the night of June 4, 1989. Vogel said he devoted two chapters in his book to the incident and reviews say the book adds important new details on the behind-the-scenes actions of Chinese officials. But he said there is little debate about what happened. The student movement was gaining strength and Deng tried to control the protest with unarmed troops. Demonstrators resisted and a few days later armed forces were sent to the square. Hundreds, perhaps thousands died – Vogel says no one is sure.

“The debate is really was it a good decision because it held the country together or was it a bad decision because it was such a terrible thing,” Vogel said. Vogel said he personally believes it was a terrible thing, but that Deng was worried about holding China together.

Vogel said Deng thought his reforms would move the country along quickly, aided by two factors. One was a huge inexpensive labor force. But the other was the emergence of several new construction techniques that allowed buildings to be erected much more quickly than before. A building boom in Hong Kong had helped perfect the new techniques a few years previous to the surge in mainland Chinese construction.

Vogel said that history will remember Deng as one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. “He transformed the country and brought several hundred million people out of poverty. He changed China from an agrarian country to one with an urban civilization. History will see Deng as an extraordinary person. No one had the impact on the people he did.”

Seattle has a place in Deng’s history as well. Deng made an historic visit to the United States in 1979. After meetings with President Jimmy Carter and other top officials in Washington, Deng actually left the U.S. from Seattle. While here, he met with the state’s two powerful senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, visited Boeing and attended several receptions and luncheons. In a departure speech at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he said, "The Pacific, instead of being a barrier, should henceforth serve as a link.” As a reporter then for The Seattle Times, I covered his visit and recall a smiling, grandfatherly man, much smaller in stature than I expected. For me, it was the beginning of a strong interest in Asia and China, including many trips there. After a first trip to China in about 1984 just as China was beginning its remarkable rise, I have seen the changes there first hand over the years.

Around 1984 I recall standing on a “street” in Shenzhen, one of the then-new special economic zones. Long boulevards were platted into the distance. One large building of about 30 stories was under construction with excavation going on all over. My guide was bullish on Shenzhen — “more than a million people or more will soon live here,” he said. Today Vogel said the population of Shenzhen, which has its own English-language web site, is estimated — no one knows for sure — at somewhere between 10 and 20 million. That’s like adding the New York metropolitan area — subways and all — in two decades.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.