Most of the champagne-sipping guests probably expected China's Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping to comment on the "great happy event" of renewed relations with the United States, but not everybody expected he would make so many pointed references to the Soviet Union, nor to speak of Europe "overshadowed by the threat of war," and "warmongers who are daily propagating an illusion of peace and detente."
Teng cut short his tour of the National Gallery's East Building, staying only long enough to meet 32 members of four groups interested in Chinese politics and culture.
He then entered the main lobby and through an interpreter delivered a brief and, some thought, surprisingly hard-hitting speech to the 1,000 guests at a reception in his honor last night, then left immediately without mingling.
Charles Yost, former United Nations ambassador and an outspoken supporter of diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic, said Teng, in speaking to the 32, merely welcomed the projected cultural and scientific exchange groups between the two countries, and broached no new points. He said Teng was very tired, had not had supper by 10 last night, and did not entertain questions beyond international exchanges.
In his speech in the main lobby he said that the new Sino-American relations must be viewed in an "overall global context and with a long-range politico-strategic perspective."
All peace-loving people and countries are pleased with the new ties, he said, though others regard this as "a threat to themselves." The Sino-American normalization could only be a threat, he said, to "the hegemonists."
America and China, he said, are committed to seeking no hegemony of their own in the Asia-Pacific region, and this is a "reassurance" to all other countries and is "a deterrent against hegemonists."
Observing that China and the United States have "fundamentally different" ideologies, he said they both have a common interest in peace.
He then spoke of tension in Africa, the Middle East, West Asia, Southeast Asia where, he said, the independence of many Third World countries has been threatened "or infringed upon."
The loudspeaker system was so bad -- an American, not a Chinese, technoligical inadequacy -- that virtually nobody could understand his speech beyond an occasional word or phrase. Many drifted back to get another glass of wine, since they could neither hear noe see Teng, though many climbed up in the stone boxes that hold tropical fig trees and tried to peer through the leaves for a better view.
"With the full backing of the Soviet Union," he said, Vietnam is "brazenly subjecting" Cambodia to "massive armed aggression."
He added that "the zealous pushing of a global strategy for world domination by the hegemonists" was bound to increase the danger "of a new world war."
War is not to China's interest, he said. "We are firmly against a new world war -- one of the objectives of China's foreign policy is to delay its outbreak." He said when his country became powerful and modernized it could "make a bigger contribution" to keeping world peace.
He warned of the "illusion" of detente, and said this harsh reality should be faced "instead of comforting oneself like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand."
Following the speech and applause, and as guests raced about trying to find someone who had understood what had been said, Teng and his party shook a few hands and marched briskly out.
I. M. Pei, the Canton-born architect of the new gallery, and Carter Brown, director, did not get to take Teng upstairs, or show him around.
At one point it had been hoped Teng would visit the exhibit of American primitive painting, but this did not occur.
The vice premier smiled affably but did look somewhat tired from his crowded schedule in the capital.
Most of the guests were identified one way or another with the four sponsors of the reception: the Asia Society, the Committee on Scholarly Communications with the People's Republic of China, the Foreign Policy Association and the National Committee on U.S. China Relations.
Unlike the vice premier, the guests could have easten an early supper before arriving. Food was not served, but there were red and white wine, champagne, orange juice and, some said, Fresca.
The Coco-Cola Co. was reported to have contributed to the reception, but no Cokes were served and a gallery spokesman, when asked about it, said spilled Cokes would stain the marble floor, and that the company did not seek any publicity for its contribution to the evening.
Many in the mezzanine hung over the rails, partly for support since there was no place to sit down and some had been standing for three hours.
Someone asked Pei if Teng admired the building:
"I don't know," he said. "I just shook his hand."
The East Building of the gallery was selected as the site of the soiree because "it's big, it's nice, and I. M. Pei is Chinese," said an official of one of the four host organizations. Indeed it is big, and the guests were almost dwarfed in the cavernous halls, which not only rendered the human size inconsequential but obliterated the acoustics.
Each of the four sponsoring groups, which except for the National Council on U.S. China Relations and the Foreign Policy Association had little in common with each other, was allowed to invite 250 people, and each was allowed eight or so people in the secluded audience with Teng.
While Teng was closeted with the questioners, who earned the privilege of this audience by virtue of their years of contact with China prior to the normalization of diplomatic relations, the guests milled about sipping wine and soft drinks. A few visited the Picasso clooection, which was nearly deserted, and spent a few quiet moments with that master.
A man from the Chinese liaison office here, who was wearing a red, white and blue button celebrating Teng's visit, was asked what he thought the average Chinese person would think of the massive Alexander Calder mobile that hangs from the gallery's ceiling.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Uh, well, uh, it is, ah, very curious, very strange." There was a pause. "But I think of course we can learn from things that are strange."
The guests were all people who had backed normalizing Sino-American relations. "We did Ping-Pong," said an official of the National Council of U.S.-China Relations, referring to the historic exchange of Ping-Pong players before former president Richard M. Nixon's visit in 1972. "We've worked very hard; it's nice to give them a chance to see him up close."
As relations are normalized, some of the groups that sponsored last night's affair may in fact be in danger of becoming obsolete. "We're in a period of re-thinking our role," said Alex DiAngelis of the Committee on Scholarly Communications.