President Trump may soon have himself a deal.
After years of criticizing China for “ripping us off” with “unfair trade practices,” and after a months-long trade war involving more than $360 billion in two-way tariffs, Trump is optimistic about announcing an economic accord with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit that could happen as early as late April.
The good news is that Trump’s negotiators appear to have won concessions from China on removing requirements for foreign firms to enter joint ventures with local entities and banning forced technology transfer. They are also moving toward an enforcement mechanism that might finally do something to curb rampant Chinese intellectual-property theft and protectionism that costs U.S. firms an estimated $50 billion a year.
But much work remains, not least Beijing’s translation of the draft agreement into Chinese, as the two sides have so far operated only in English. Many observers worry that China could water down its commitments by inserting vague language into the final text. As negotiations over U.S.-China normalization in the late 1970s show, the Trump administration must be vigilant about policing the faithfulness of the Chinese text, lest it become a backdoor vehicle for undermining the deal.
In December 1978, in their rush to normalize bilateral ties with China, U.S. diplomats blundered by allowing Beijing to slip an important change into the Chinese text of the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations. This normalization communique was hailed as a “historic development,” marking the end of three decades of isolation and of official U.S. recognition for Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing considers to be a renegade province. Historian Enrico Fardella calls this normalization President Jimmy Carter’s “greatest success.” Indeed, the American opening to China was a key moment in the United States’ Cold War maneuvering against the Soviet Union.
However, on Jan. 3, 1979, Michel Oksenberg, a China specialist on the National Security Council, sent a remarkable memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, to warn about a “translation problem” in the normalization communique.
That problem boiled down to one word: “acknowledge.” In the 1972 Shanghai Communique, the foundational document of U.S.-China relations, the United States said that it “acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”
This noncommittal language was crucial, because Washington wanted to pursue its own One-China policy, whereby the United States acknowledged but did not accept either Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan or any Taiwanese claim to statehood. Similarly, then, the normalization communique stated that the U.S. government “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”
But while the English word, “acknowledges,” is the same in both documents, in translation it turned into something different. The Shanghai Communique used the word-phrase “renshi dao” (认识到), which connotes knowledge and understanding, whereas the normalization communique used the verb “chengren” (承认), a stronger term that connotes recognition and assent.
How did this happen?
In his memo, Oksenberg informed Brzezinski that during the “hectic days” before the normalization communique was finalized, the National Security Council “never saw” the Chinese version of the text because it “worked entirely from the English.” Right before the normalization communique was released, the U.S. Liaison Office (USLO) in Beijing assured Oksenberg that there were “no problems” with the Chinese translation. Afterward, the USLO explained to Oksenberg that it had noticed the insertion of “chengren” but decided not to inform Washington, because Chinese officials used “several English-Chinese dictionaries” to argue that there was “no substantive significance” to the new translation.
Oksenberg disagreed. He worried that the administration had “tampered with the ‘holy writ’ of the Shanghai Communique” and that “more than a few linguists” would say that “chengren” “denotes a stronger acceptance of the Chinese position” than “renshi dao.” Oksenberg implied that, had he seen the draft Chinese text, Washington would have pushed back.
The ramifications of this change were potentially significant. U.S. supporters of the Taiwanese regime, which had built a formidable China lobby in Washington, could have seized on the more conciliatory Chinese phrasing to portray Carter administration officials as dupes and bolster resistance to normalization policies on Capitol Hill.
To avoid these minefields, Oksenberg recommended a three-pronged defense: First, both governments had “worked from the English text”; second, the U.S. view was “expressed in the English”; and third, “chengren” was used by other countries with China. Brzezinski underlined the words “expressed in the English” and wrote “Yes. ZB.” Then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher later confirmed during congressional debates that the United States would “regard the English text as being the binding text.”
Beijing, however, saw the Chinese text as equally binding. The Foreign Ministry’s official history of U.S.-China relations foregrounds the United States’ agreement to “chengren” — Beijing‘s view on Taiwan.
And the conflict wasn’t simply one of language. It seems that Beijing took advantage of the American preference for English-first negotiations to advance its own foreign policy goals. Shi Yanhua, a government translator who worked on the normalization communique, recalled years later that she was present when Zhang Wenjin, a senior diplomat who had helped draft the document, purposefully changed “renshi dao” to “chengren” because the latter term was “more in line” with Beijing’s policy on Taiwan. These facts contradicted the assurances provided to the USLO that the new translation had “no substantive significance.”
This disclosure indicates that the USLO’s failure to object to the new Chinese text was a blunder, one that could have either strained U.S.-Chinese relations or pinned the United States to a policy that it did not support.
Fortunately for Washington, the Chinese, preoccupied with domestic development and strategic competition with the Soviet Union and Vietnam, chose to do little as the United States turned its own understanding of the agreement into policy in the region. In April 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act created a legal basis for the de facto diplomatic relations that still exist between the United States and Taiwan. The Six Assurances offered to Taiwan in 1982 affirmed that the United States “would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.”
That does not mean, however, that China’s linguistic chicanery was meaningless. Domestically, it helped fortify the legitimacy of Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, supporting a version of China in which its Communist Party controls Taipei.
And the history of this mistake may not be over. As China seeks increasingly to “set the parameters of acceptable discourse” in global affairs, especially with regard to its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, the words of the normalization communique may still become potent weapons of statecraft, diplomatic ammunition in a potential (if contentious) case for sovereignty should Beijing ever decide to force the issue of reunification with Taiwan.
This blunder was not a one-off occurrence. Over the past 40 years, Western observers often overlooked what Beijing was saying about its national ambitions. The policy of engagement that Washington has pursued with China may have been its best option, but if successive administrations had taken Beijing’s words more seriously, the United States might have been more proactive in safeguarding the international order from the political, economic and security challenges posed by an authoritarian superpower — challenges that have necessitated a new trade agreement today.
With U.S.-China relations at their lowest ebb in two decades, and the two countries’ governments increasingly divided over issues of trade, technology, geopolitics and human rights, the normalization communique is a lesson in the overconfidence that led many Americans to overlook Chinese intentions.
The Trump administration must not let China pull another fast one as it translates this new agreement. Because, for Beijing, reality is not “expressed in the English.”