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July 30, 2020

The Honeymoon Will Continue: China, Houston, and the Euphoria of 1979

Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping accepts a cowboy hat during his visit to the Simonton Roundup Rodeo Arena, February 2, 1979. Photo Credit: Walt McNamee/Getty Images

By David Kurlander

Last Friday, following the State Department’s decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston due to spying allegations, anti-communist protesters jeered the departing civil servants with chants of “Take back China!” Simultaneously, at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s bellicose remarks condemning the Chinese Communist Party raised the specter of a new Cold War. The sudden centrality of Houston to the U.S.-China relationship evokes the hopeful—yet familiarly tense—origins of the consulate, which emerged in the wake of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s ebullient U.S. tour four decades ago…

Deng Xiaoping visited Houston in early February 1979, following an historic visit to Washington, during which the relationship between China and the U.S. was formally “normalized.” Mao had died less than four years earlier. In the power struggle that followed, the radical Gang of Four—led by Mao’s doctrinaire wife—lost out to Deng’s reformist, more America-friendly faction. Deng had moved to open trade with China’s most brutal historical adversary, Japan, and put out feelers about rapidly increasing the volume of existent oil deals with the United States. 

The Carter administration, led by eager National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, signaled its willingness to open consulates and pursue a more diverse economic partnership. Deng came to the White House ready to sign the accords. “I was favorably impressed with Deng,” Carter wrote in his diary on the day he met the Chinese leader. “He’s small, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly, and it’s a pleasure to negotiate with him.” 

Deng joked with Carter as John Denver and the Harlem Globetrotters performed in his honor at the Kennedy Center. And he met excitedly with President Nixon, who returned to the White House for the first time since his resignation in 1974 for a banquet that would have seemed nearly impossible seven years earlier, when Nixon first set foot in China.

Despite the positive vibes, however, there were still sticking points. China was mulling a border war with former ally Vietnam, which was truly the last thing that the U.S. needed to be tied up in. Carter said as much, ultimately to no avail. Even more stressful was Taiwan, the nationalist island stronghold that the U.S. had recognized as the only legitimate Chinese government until Nixon’s trip. Carter had agreed—to the chagrin of many conservatives—to pull out of the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan and to create a convoluted private company, the American Institute in Taiwan, to run trade and diplomacy without having to offer formal acknowledgment.

The awkwardness over Taiwan had burst open in Houston just days before Deng’s arrival, when Meldrim Thomson, New Hampshire’s far-right ex-governor and the national Conservative Caucus chairman, hosted a 1,500-person rally decrying Carter’s policy of “appeasement.” “Only the American business community stands to gain from this greatest of all diplomatic deceits,” Thomson told the crowd, made up primarily of Chinese American supporters of Taiwan. 

Thomson, however, could not throw a wrench in Deng’s plans. The Chinese had already signaled their intention to open a consulate in Houston. In addition to buying oil extraction tools, China had started selling some of its own crude back to Texas. An oil ecosystem was forming. “Both the city and Texas at large love it,” New York Times journalist William Stevens wrote shortly after Deng’s visit. “The same Texas that has often embraced a right-wing, militantly anti-Communist foreign policy and the same Houston that is sister city to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.”

Texas Governor Bill Clements perfectly embodied this contradiction between big business and Chinese Communism. A stalwart conservative, Clements also ran a massive offshore drilling operation, SEDCO, that China had already invested in. After initially declining his invitation to Deng’s tour of the Johnson Space Center, Clements ultimately showed up and watched alongside astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn as Deng rode a lunar rover and did two rounds of a Pacific coast landing in the Space Shuttle simulator.

Clements, bucking conservative political pressure, was all smiles about the burgeoning relationship: “They’re going to have to buy from us the kinds of equipment that will enable them to develop those [oil and gas] reserves. So that’s good for business here in Texas. I don’t see anything but pluses in it, frankly.”

Deng agreed. After NASA, he examined rock-drilling bits at Hughes Tool and held an off-the-record meeting with oil magnates in his room at the top of the Hyatt Regency (Hyatt was also in talks to build $1 billion worth of hotels in China). “We are happy to have the opportunity to come and learn about your advances in the petroleum industry, to meet new personalities and make new friends,” Deng said at the airport. 

The most famous images of Deng’s Texas tour are from the Simonton Roundup Rodeo Arena, in a small town West of Houston, where he donned a cowboy hat, drank beer, and was presented with a 1500-pound Brahman Bull, bizarrely nicknamed Mr. Sugarato 860. Journalist Orville Schell, who was at Simonton, argued in his memoir, “Watch Out for the Foreign Guests: China Encounters the West,” that Deng’s embrace of cowboy aesthetics was “a tacit admission of how far the Chinese now seem willing to lose themselves in a world of Sino-American rapprochement.” (For more on the seismic rodeo visit, also check out Washington Post reporter Adam Taylor’s superb article, “How a 10-gallon hat helped heal relations between China and America.”)

“The honeymoon will continue,” Deng prophetically predicted shortly after signing the consular agreements with Carter. In August 1979, Vice President Walter Mondale traveled to Guangzhou to open the first U.S. consulate in China since the Communist takeover. The Houston consulate followed three months later. Meanwhile, Governor Clements sent his lieutenant, Bill Hobby, for a fresh round of oil export deals, a further step toward the entwined U.S.-China corporate relationship that would mature (and transition dramatically toward Chinese imports) over the following decade.

As the current geopolitical fallout from the closure of the Houston consulate continues, Deng and Houston’s enthusiasm seems more and more distant, while the reactionary rhetoric of Meldrim Thomson feels increasingly familiar. It remains to be seen whether the long honeymoon is truly at an end…

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