Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has always been treated with respect in China for his role in establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries 35 years ago.

On his most recent trip, though, the nation that often wows dignitaries with its official hospitality came as close as it ever has to offending the former president’s sensibilities. 

Shortly before arrival on his four-city, 10-day trip, the Ministry of Education ordered universities working with the Carter Center delegation not to host their events. 

“We began shifting the venues to hotels and attempted to learn the reason for this unprecedented departure from my previous treatment in China,” Mr. Carter wrote in a trip report on the Carter Center’s website. “However, this problem was quickly resolved, and may have been caused by a general concern about foreigners relating directly to students as well as a bureaucratic unease because of uncertainty regarding the massive anti-corruption drive.”

The arrangements went ahead as originally planned in Beijing and Shanghai, but in Xi’an the venue change stuck. 

That didn’t sully what the former president described as an extremely productive visit that focused heavily on forging trust between the two countries, largely by building future leaders and fostering exchanges among members of the next generation. The Carter Center inaugurated multiple university partnerships, including a Chinese and American youth forum that will come to the Carter Center next year. 

In Beijing, Mr. Carter met with U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus and held the third Carter Center co-sponsored forum U.S.-China relations, which will return to Atlanta in 2015. New Carter Center CEO Mary Ann Peters was a speaker. 

Other events, including a dinner with Deng Xiaoping’s daughter and other key figures in the drama surrounding the two leaders’ secret negotiations in 1978, commemorated the 35th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties. 

Birthday Bash

Along with that anniversary, Mr. Carter turns 90 on Oct. 1, which happens to be the People’s Republic of China’s national day. Each city had its own way to show of showing its well wishes to the former president. 

At a dinner in Qingdao Sept. 7, a fireworks display coincided with the presentation of Mr. Carter’s birthday cake. Not to be outdone, American tourists visiting the famed Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an serenaded the former president with “Happy Birthday.”

Troubled Ties? 

China’s economic ascendancy and rising nationalism have created a sense of inevitable competition between the world’s two largest economies, and mistrust on both sides is rampant, Mr. Carter wrote. During a forum in Shanghai, he answered many questions from scholars and leaders that implied as much by their phrasing. 

“There is a disturbing assumption that America is a ’status quo’ or dormant society and that China is in an ascendant mode in almost all aspects of life. President Obama is quoted often regarding a new and expanded U.S. presence in the Western Pacific and a claim that China is a ‘free rider’ on the backs of American entrepreneurs and scientists,” Mr. Carter wrote. 

In his answers, he sought to emphasize that the countries’ common interests outweigh these areas of potential conflict. 

“Massive trade and commerce, millions of tourists exchanged, and the 240,000 Chinese students now in the United States provide good opportunities for better understanding and mutual respect,” he wrote. 

That commercial relationship is exemplified by Mr. Carter’s visit to the Shanghai research center of ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications giant. 

ZTE partners with top mobile providers like AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile in the U.S. market, where it is the No. 4 provider of smartphones by one research firm’s estimate. The company is providing teleconferencing equipment to the Carter Center, as well as small tablets the center’s election observers will use in Chinese villages. 

Executives credited Mr. Carter and the late Mr. Deng with setting the stage for its growth in the U.S.

“The foundations laid by President Carter will continue to underpin collaboration between the technology industries in the U.S. and China going forward,” said Cheng Lixin, ZTE’s CEO for the U.S. market, in a news release.

Read President Carter’s full trip report here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...