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Remembrance: Governor John Spellman's 1982 trip to China, establishing ties between Washington and Sichuan

WithGovSpellman, Feb. 19, 2014By Wen Liu   Jan. 19, 2018

As you probably have heard or read as I have in the Seattle Times that Governor John Spellman, the 18th Governor of Washington (1981-1985), passed away early this week. My immediate thoughts were how fortunate I was to get to interview him in February 2014 for him to tell me all about his 1982 trip to China, during which he, with his counterpart Governor Lu Dadong, signed the friendship agreement between the State of Washington and the Province of Sichuan. In his office at the law firm Carney Badley Spellman, he showed me a big book of journal of that trip and read some of the passages to me. At the end of the interview, Governor Spellman and I had a picture together in the hallway. When I thanked him upon leaving for his kindness and time, he said, “You made my day!” I am glad I did, Governor.

The following is a reprint of Governor Spellman’s first-trip-to-China story from that interview and as included in my book “My First Impression of China: Washingtonians’ First Trips to the Middle Kingdom.”


When I was very young, children were told that if you dig deep enough, you will go to China. Where I went to school, there were lots of Japanese children till they got shipped off in the war. My exposure to China or Chinese people was much more limited.

After high school at Seattle Prep, I went into the Navy. I was on a ship in the Pacific, the Marshall Islands. After I came back, I went to Seattle University. When I graduated, I had to choose what I was going to do. I went to Georgetown Law. After the war, working for peace was the important thing.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Aug. 8, 1982My brother was killed in the Korean War. Because of that I had mixed emotions about Asia. I was reluctant to go to Korea and didn’t until I was governor. He was my only brother, my older brother. He was 25 when he was killed. Losing him enhanced my desire to do something about international affairs.

I was King County executive when Deng Xiaoping came to Seattle in 1979. I went to the events but never met Deng Xiaoping. I was a reluctant dragon. I was still making up my mind. But I met his sister many times later. I think it was 1981 when a small delegation from Sichuan came here, representing the governor of Sichuan Province. We had a meeting and dinner and they suggested we could go there. We said we were interested, and I got a letter from Governor Lu Dadong formally inviting me to go.

I had good staff helping me put together a delegation. We had presidents of the University of Washington and Washington State University. We had a senior vice president of Boeing. We had the head of Weyerhaeuser. We had people from various farm communities, the wheat association, apple association. We had medical people. It was a well-balanced group so we could meet with people in Sichuan and reach some kind of agreement.

We went in October 1982. My state patrol guards went as far as Narita airport in Japan. I said, “I am not going to take any security into China. That would be disrespectful.” Up until then, and I think even after, governors were required to take security everywhere they went. I thought it would be a negative. I could show my trust by not having them.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Oct. 6, 1982.It wasn’t that I didn’t have security. I had Chinese security. I had broken my knee and was walking with some impairment. After a while, I noticed a big tall young man who was following me everywhere. He would help me down steps. He was also my security, my Chinese security. They reciprocated. That worked fine.

We flew on an old airplane to Shanghai instead of going to Beijing. The airport was not well organized. We had to carry our baggage a long way to get to the checkpoints. There was no place to get food. We waited most of the day going through security. It was not a pleasant experience. Then we were put on a nicer airplane, an old British Trident, a precursor of the 727, and very crowded.

When we arrived in Beijing, they rolled out the red carpet. Some officials were up from Chengdu. One was the head of the friendship society in Sichuan. I am sure Ms. Deng was there. I was whisked off in a large limo to the Beijing Hotel. We were impressed with the ride in, the broad streets, the trees, the joggers, the bicycles.

Gov. Spellman on Great Wall, 1982. Source: WA Legacy Project.The first full day, we got briefed by the ambassador, Arthur Hummel, and then went to the Great Wall. It was an experience, of course. The wall was crowded with Chinese and foreign tourists. They were afraid of my knee, monitoring me. We ran into someone from Seattle on the trip to the Great Wall. He was the head of a big law firm: Mr. Preston, of Preston Gates and Ellis.

We went to the Peking duck restaurant, had the whole duck, every part of it. We toured the city and the Summer Palace. We met with the Vice Minister of Agriculture, trying to work on the problem of wheat. They were worried about getting smut on the wheat from Washington. They said they were going to work it out, and they did finally. We met with the mayor of Beijing. We also had a formal meeting in the Great Hall of the People with Mr. Ji, the former Foreign Minister, a member of the advisory council, much respected. He was the representative of Deng Xiaoping. Primarily we talked about trade and agriculture. Next day, we left for Chengdu.

Gov. Spellman arriving in Chengdu, 1982. Source: WA Legacy Project.We got a very good welcome in Chengdu. Governor Lu Dadong came to the airport. There is a good picture of his greeting me, walking out of the airplane. We rode in his Red Flag limo to Jinjiang Hotel. Big suite, very nice, two penzais. I think it was first day Gov. Lu gave us a welcoming banquet.

One thing I noted in my journal was Chinese television. They had all these young people learning English. I also noted the statue of Mao on the main street. I wrote, “He is being slowly down-graded.” The Cultural Revolution was referred to as the “ten terrible years” or “years of turmoil.”

I had informal discussions with Gov. Lu and other people along the way. We talked a lot about American government, the system, how it works, about various politicians. They wanted to know details of what the government was doing, how various people were influential and so forth. This was not too long after Nixon’s visit to China. He was still very popular there. They seemed to have a great admiration for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. To China, they were like revolutionary leaders.

At the signing of the friendship agreement between Washington and Sichuan, we each made a speech. I worked on it extensively. I included parts of “America the Beautiful.” I also included a reference to the Heavenly Kingdom, which they called themselves in Sichuan, and God’s Country, which many people called the state of Washington, a similarity we both treasure. We gave speeches and signed books. There was a big audience. That night, we had a banquet, gave toast and “gan bei.” Matt Chen of Boeing interpreted my speech, which also referenced Deng, China-U.S. communications and Nixon. Then I led our people to sing “America the Beautiful.” Some of the people of Chengdu knew “Home on the Range,” and we sang that, too. A Chinese opera star sang “Jingle Bells.” There was a lot of singing on the trip.

Newspaper archives screenshot.The delegation peeled off for a while to meet with their Chengdu counterparts. They took me to many places. I visited panda bears. I went to the art factory where they made the beautiful brocade, with pictures on both sides.

I am Catholic, and I insisted that I was going to go to church on Sunday. So 6:30 in the morning, in the middle of a poor area in Chengdu, all the neighbors got up to look at something unusual. The church building had been bombed. The roof was out. They had a little old bishop, a tiny man, and he did everything in Latin. Some nuns played organ and sang. A few people of the group went to the communion. I wrote in my notes: “the church beleaguered.” They were under somebody’s thumb at that point. I wrote something like I had to keep tears from forming in my eye because it was such a moving thing to see.

When we said good-bye in Chengdu, we were presented a photo album of the trip. There was formal toast by Gov. Lu. In my own remarks, I mentioned Sen. Warren Magnuson who because of health couldn’t be there. I explained “Auld Lang Syne,” lift a glass of wine for an old friend and sing for our friendship. We all sang “Auld Lang Syne.” I could sing that pretty well.

We took train from Chengdu to Chongqing. The train stopped in the middle of the night to change engines. It was all old-fashioned steam engines, whistle blowing, chucking around, and very picturesque.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Oct. 7, 1982We visited kindergartens and schools, colleges, hospitals. A lot had occurred in the universities, exchange programs. In the medical field, the Chinese were way behind then. I am sure they aren’t anymore. We also went to a folk dance show of what they call the minority people. It was really good.

I had noted early on that Chinese children were well cared for, clean clothed and happy. I met with Ned Skinner, head of the Alaska Steamship Company, in my room, with two large bottles of beer, and discussed the trip. He didn’t understand why the Chinese didn’t despair because of the hopeless life and poverty. I told him they are now well fed, no longer starving, making great progress, children are happy, and parents know their children will be better off than they are. It was obvious to me that they were happy and looking forward.

We went to Shanghai, another Jinjiang Hotel. The conditions in the hotel were really good. I had a suite Nixon had had. Shanghai was an international town. I remember walking around in Shanghai, looking in the stores. We went to an acrobatic performance, a dome facility. The trip ended in Shanghai and we flew back.

Before we left we had been briefed in Olympia by experts who told us we would have to approach Chinese representatives very subtly, going through the formalities, not starting right off trying to get anything done. That wasn’t the way at all. They wanted to talk about education, exchange students, whatever it was. They wanted to get things done.

The trip increased my dedication to international peace and relationships. People have to know each other. That seemed important for governors and other government officials. It broadened my respect for the Chinese people, in particular my optimism about China.

Gov. Spellman at book launch party, Oct. 24, 2014I am still very optimistic for China. We shouldn’t just get together and talk about big problems, but get together to know each other. I am sure the children I saw on the first trip are much better off than the previous generation. And the next one will be, too.

Long after I got back, students were asking me questions. Why did you go to China? I said, “The principal reason why my trip was important is we got to know each other, and that helps build a peaceful relationship. That’s a big thing. That’s principal reason we go on a trip like that. Don’t ask questions about little things.”

In the book John Hughes wrote of me, I am asked, what is the most important thing you did as governor? I said, "My trip to China. It stands out. We made more progress in a positive way than anything else I can think of."


(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)

(For a copy of "My First Impression of China: Washingtonians' First Trips to the Middle Kingdom," go here.)