BEIJING -- He established diplomatic relations with China two decades ago, helping along a relationship that time has only made more important. Now Jimmy Carter, in his typically gentle way, is deploying his clout as an elder statesman to enter places and talk to people no one else could.
Denied a second presidential term long ago, Carter these days is hammering away at all he holds dear: writing books, building houses for poor people and -- at the top of his list -- the seeding of democracy across the world.
"Every year has shown an improvement," Carter, now 76, said Tuesday.
On his eighth visit to China, Carter is quoting China's dead leaders, meeting with its living ones and talking small-town democracy. He's checking in on his nonprofit Carter Center's five-year-old China Villages Election Project, making sure the partnership with the Ministry of Civil Affairs is putting people in office that their fellow citizens have selected.
On Monday, he met the chairman of the National People's Congress. On Thursday, he takes his election advocacy and other matters of import to Chinese President Jiang Zemin. In between, on Wednesday, he visits a farming village near Shanghai to look in on an election.
Himself a farmer
Carter was a farmer by trade before he waded into politics, and farmers were the underpinning of Thomas Jefferson's ideal of agrarian citizen participation, which shaped American democracy. Now Carter is helping spread that notion to China, which remains 69 percent rural.
Carter, who has monitored elections across the world, emphasizes that he is visiting China as a private citizen, not an envoy. "I'm not a spokesman for the Bush administration," he told reporters.
In Beijing, though, the man known as "ka te" remains a symbol of the possibility that China-U.S. relations will hold.
"He's always been regarded as a good friend," said Yawei Liu, associate director of the election project. "He has the influence no one else has."
President Nixon's crucial visit to China famously opened the door, and Carter followed through seven years later. On Dec. 15, 1979, his administration established diplomatic relations with China, ending a three-decade alienation and downgrading relations with Taiwan, long considered by many Americans the seat of the Chinese government.
Reaction was swift. Taiwan was stunned, its supporters in Congress enraged. A group of senators sued Carter -- unsuccessfully -- to reverse the move. In Carter's home state, the Coca-Cola Co. was more enthusiastic; within four days, it announced it would begin sales in China.
Simultaneously, in China, Deng Xiaoping was hatching economic reforms that would usher China's tightly controlled economy into an age when leaders link a flourishing free market to the march toward Chinese-style socialism.