By Patrick Gregory, a public history major at Shepherd University and student intern at the Byrd Center.
Since the end of WWII, members of the Senate and House of Representatives have often gone on trips abroad called congressional delegations, or CODELs. These delegations provide opportunities for members of Congress to gain firsthand knowledge of the nations that the United States has diplomatic relationships with, develop personal and professional relationships with foreign officials and dignitaries, and to negotiate important policy matters. Senator Byrd went on numerous CODELs across the world during his six decades in Congress, including two trips to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) following the opening of diplomatic relations in the 1970’s.
The overarching change to Chinese society since 1975, according to Senator Byrd, was the emergence of a more practical market-based approach to problem solving. Byrd mentions “the introduction of incentives into the economy – on a very limited basis…the interest in modern management techniques, and the granting of increased autonomy to the local and provincial levels and to various enterprises” as evidence of this change. The Senator also reported that “residents of the area were selling their produce and wares,” an example of the increased levels of autonomy to business he observed in Yunnan Province. When visiting a commune outside of Beijing, Senator Byrd was impressed to find the emphasis on increasing production was no longer about ideological rhetoric and instead practical incentives. He noted specifically an increased “willingness and desire to learn from the experience and knowledge of others” among the people.
Senator Byrd also met with Chinese leaders and discussed their worries about Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign rhetoric, which concerned possible changes to U.S. policy towards China and Taiwan. Chinese leaders were anxious over the rhetoric and viewed Reagan’s statements as anti-Communist and anti-China. Senator Byrd used the CODEL as an avenue to reassure the Chinese that positive relations between the US and China were a desire in Congress and among the American people, despite the sentiments of the incoming president. In response, Premier Hua Guofeng stated that China did not view its relationship with the US to be a passing façade but a necessary goal for both countries’ long term interests. Hua Guofeng concluded his meeting with Senator Byrd by proclaiming that isolationism could no longer exist in a globalized world, but that Asia, the US, and Western Europe must come together to face the opposing forces they held in common. Byrd shared this sentiment and concluded his report by stating “It would be short-sighted and irresponsible – clearly contrary to U.S. interests – to attempt to turn back the clock in our relations with the PRC… to alter the relationship between the U.S. and China would undermine the remarkable progress we have made.”