128. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s Exposed Position

We are now far enough into the Teng era in China so that some evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses can be made. We are also beginning to get enough feel, after 18 months of watching Chinese internal developments, to crank the domestic element into the formulation of our China policy.

Teng Hsiao-p’ing clearly has the initiative in Chinese policy formulation across the board. The policies he is pushing are, increasingly, openly “revisionist,” and some of the propaganda justifying them stops only a half inch short of being plainly anti-Maoist—a fact which is not lost on the politically sophisticated element of the populace whose opinion counts. Not only do current policies have an almost uniformly “Tengist” flavor, but Teng is also doing well in the personnel area—nearly all significant appointments have gone to men with close ties to Teng, wall posters and other bits of nastiness continue to be directed from time to time against his known and putative political enemies and he has recently inaugurated a purge of presumed “Lin Piao sympathizers” in the army which, if it spreads, could have major political significance. This is especially true in light of Lin’s reputed espousal of a moderately pro-Soviet line, on the one hand, and Teng’s revelation that China plans to abrogate the Sino-Soviet treaty, on the other.

Yet, despite the evidence that much is going Teng’s way and that his policies are genuinely popular, it is also clear that he is encountering numerous difficulties:

Hua Kuo-feng has yet to identify himself with many of Teng’s policies and key ideological formulations and has on several occasions seemed to support modification of the policies by stressing the Maoist heritage;

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—Teng has been unable to purge several key figures, civilian and military, whom he has been attempting to topple for some time;

—Propaganda supporting Teng’s economic and educational policies has frequently been defensive;

—The policies themselves have been implemented unevenly, probably because many bureaucrats believe these policies lack staying power and hence are unwilling to identify with them;

—While popular with most sectors of society, Teng’s policies clearly harm the younger members of the political elite who gained their positions in the Cultural Revolution.

Teng seems aware of his problems. His remark to you that he has only three more years on the political stage, whether resulting from a firm injunction already imposed on him, or motivated by a desire to disarm his political foes, is a good indicator of that awareness.2 As with the President’s gamble in the Middle East, Teng appears to feel that only bold leadership—with the risks it entails—will enable China to vault over its current difficulties and become set on a less easily reversible course. But this leaves Teng in an exposed position, which many around him—Hua included—may seek to exploit should failures occur. Teng is looking for, and obviously needs, some easy, generally noncontroversial victories (the Japanese PFT is one).3 Given structural and deep-seated Chinese economic problems, major and unambiguous victories on that front are not likely to be available in the time frame in which he is thinking, and he is likely, therefore, to look to foreign policy for his necessary success.

Policy Implications:

—In our handling of the satellite,4 we should take into account Teng’s desire for a rapid decision on a significant event of symbolic im[Page 514]portance which would redound to Teng’s credit. His concern on this score probably accounts for his handling of the issue on a priority basis.

—How we handle the student exchange program should take into account Teng’s vulnerabilities. We want to make sure that the Chinese students are qualified and that the program entails reciprocity, but the way we achieve these objectives must not intrude on Chinese definitions of sovereignty.

—On normalization, Teng may be looking for a deal but will seek to wrap flexibility in rhetoric that we may find objectionable—but which reduces Teng’s domestic burdens.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 8, China (People’s Republic of): 6–8/78. Secret. Sent for information. At the top of the page, Brzezinski wrote, “RI: WR or DR,” meaning that he wanted to submit this memorandum to the President in the Weekly Report or Daily Report. On the second page, Inderfurth wrote, “ZB, A WR item? Rick.” Oksenberg sent a shorter version of this memorandum, addressed to Carter, to Brzezinski for his signature under an August 14 covering memorandum. (Ibid.)
  2. Brzezinski informed Carter of Deng’s comment in his report on his visit, Document 113.
  3. Japan and China had been negotiating a peace and friendship treaty for several years. They signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between Japan and the People’s Republic of China on August 12. Telegram 14704 from Tokyo, August 15, summarizes the terms of the treaty. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign File, D780334–0762)
  4. The United States was considering launching a U.S.-made satellite on behalf of the PRC. (Memorandum from Oksenberg to Brzezinski, August 16; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 56, Policy Process: 6–9/78) Telegram 239586 to Beijing, September 20, transmitted a letter from NASA to the Chinese Space Technology Academy making two offers: 1) to place a PRC “civil peaceful domestic communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit on a fully reimbursable basis;” 2) NASA’s cooperation in helping the PRC to procure “two 12-transponder c-band communications satellites of appropriate design” from U.S. industry, which NASA would then launch into geosynchronous orbit. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780384–0679)