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23 February 2022updated 27 Feb 2022 2:27pm

Nixon in China: the complicated legacy of the week that changed the world

Fifty years after the US president’s visit to Beijing heralded a new era of diplomacy, the divisions between the US and China are deepening again.

By Katie Stallard

Leaving for China on 17 February 1972, the US president Richard Nixon gave a short speech to the excited crowds that had gathered on the White House lawn. Wearing a plain grey suit and looking slightly surprised by the number of people who had arrived to see him off, he described the “historic mission” that lay ahead and invoked the words of the American astronauts who had landed on the moon three years earlier. If there was one message he hoped to deliver, he said, it was this: “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Nixon called his visit to China the “week that changed the world”, and it did. It altered the course of the Cold War, and set the US and China on the path to formal diplomatic relations and decades of burgeoning trade and cultural exchange. But the trip also marked the beginning of a complicated, often painful story that is still playing out today. The fundamental differences that hindered negotiations between the nations then, such as the disagreement over the status of Taiwan, remain critical fault lines in the relationship 50 years later.

“This was a moment when a door opened between China and the US,” Rana Mitter, author of China’s Good War and a historian at the University of Oxford, told me. “But the door only opened a small crack.” Beyond the lofty declarations about achieving world peace, the real motivation for the visit on both sides was more complex. Then, as now, there were elements of idealism and pragmatism in the calculations of Washington and Beijing. Domestic politics, the international balance of power and economic considerations all played a role. Indeed, if we want to understand the roots of the rapidly intensifying rivalry between the two powers, it is worth returning to the origins of their relationship in 1972.

The US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were nominally enemies at that time. They fought each other during the Korean War (1950-53), and stood on opposing sides of the Cold War. The US refused to recognise Mao Zedong’s regime, which had been in power in Beijing since 1949, as the legitimate government of China, instead maintaining diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government on the island of Taiwan. In 1958 the US briefly considered launching a nuclear strike on the PRC after Mao began shelling Taiwan-controlled territories.  

China was also then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, with Chairman Mao urging young student radicals to “bombard the headquarters” and tear down all obstacles to revolutionary progress. Amid the violence and fervour he had stoked, there was, in some quarters, strong opposition to the idea of Mao hosting the leader of the US. “There were people in the top leadership who thought this was absolutely appalling,” said Mitter. This included the “gang of four”, a hard-left political faction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. “The gang of four wanted no part of an opening to the capitalist world,” Mitter added. “They really pointed the finger at Zhou Enlai [China’s then premier and the lead architect of the Beijing negotiations] and said, ‘Why on Earth are you doing this?’”

Nixon was a particularly unlikely candidate to bring about the rapprochement. He had built a reputation as a “red-baiter” during his early political career, denouncing various public figures for their communist allegiances, including towards “Red China”, as he and others liked to call it. For his part, Mao had long railed against the “US imperialists” and their capitalist “running dogs” as “the most rampant enemy of the people of the world”.

[see also: China doesn’t just want to be part of the global order – it wants to shape it]

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But the global balance of power was shifting, and for both Nixon and Mao, their inherent mistrust of one another was subsumed by what they perceived as a greater threat: the Soviet Union. Although Beijing and Moscow had once declared an “unbreakable” and “eternal” bond, by March 1969 relations had deteriorated, with military clashes on their shared border over an island they both claimed, called Zhenbao or Damanskii by the opposing sides. During what became known as the Sino-Soviet split, the two powers also launched political attacks against each other as each claimed to be the true leader of the communist world. Mao was so concerned about the possibility of a large-scale Soviet attack that residents were mobilised to dig air raid shelters and stockpile supplies needed to survive a nuclear strike. As the fear of war intensified that September, four top commanders in China’s People’s Liberation Army suggested playing the “American card”, and allying “with the less dangerous enemy in order to confront the more dangerous enemy”.

On the other side of the Pacific, Nixon was coming to a similar conclusion: that the Sino-Soviet split presented an opportunity to cultivate the less dangerous enemy. “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours,” he had concluded in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article. Nixon also wanted Mao’s help in extracting the US from the Vietnam War by persuading Beijing to cut off support for North Vietnam. There were domestic political considerations too. With the American economy stalling and his re-election campaign looming in November 1972, Nixon and his advisers were aware of the positive attention he would receive if the gamble paid off. In that case, he could position himself as the architect of the opening to China.

Hall of mirrors: Xi Jinping (centre) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 2 January 2019, giving a speech in which he described unification with Taiwan as “inevitable”. Photo by Mark Schiefelbein /AFP via Getty Images

It was still unclear when Nixon landed in Beijing on 21 February 1972 whether he would even meet Mao. Henry Kissinger, the US national security adviser, recounted the “strangely muted” atmosphere as Nixon and his team drove through the Chinese capital on a bitterly cold winter morning. The streets had been “cleared of onlookers”, he recalled, and the president’s arrival was relegated to the final item on the Chinese state television evening news. In truth, the Chinese leader was eager to meet Nixon, even if he didn’t want the president to know it. “Mao was as excited as I had ever seen him,” the Chinese leader’s doctor, Li Zhisui, wrote in his memoirs. As soon as Nixon had arrived at his guesthouse, he was summoned for an audience with Mao.

The official photographs show the two men smiling broadly as they shake hands, both plainly recording their new friendship for the world – and especially the Soviet government – to see. Mao joked that he had “voted for” Nixon and said he liked “rightists” because they were easier to deal with than the left. (This presumably only applied outside China: at home, he had presided over the brutal Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-59, in which hundreds of thousands of alleged rightists were sentenced to hard labour and, in some cases, to death.) The two men talked for more than an hour, but very little of substance was discussed. Kissinger noted Mao’s use of “sarcastic evasion” through which the Chinese leader made it clear he did not want to discuss the “troublesome questions”, such as the Soviet threat. Mao left the detailed negotiations concerning, among other things, the future of Taiwan to his premier Zhou Enlai, to be carried out over the following days.

The greatest achievement of the visit, beyond it happening in the first place, was the Shanghai Communiqué. In particular, one single paragraph, which Kissinger said had taken two nearly all-night sessions to agree, cleared the way for the US-China relationship that followed (although the details would be negotiated over the next seven years before diplomatic relations were formalised on 1 January 1979 and Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing). More accurately, it was an agreement to disagree, and to set aside the issue that had provoked the most profound difficulties between them: the status of Taiwan.

The formulation they hammered out, which would later be incorporated into what was known in Washington as the “One China” policy, stated that “the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”. But the US declined to say whether it agreed with that position. It was an elegant obfuscation that enabled both nations to sidestep the issue in pursuit of their economic and security goals, but it did nothing to address the underlying and still unresolved tensions surrounding Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.

Fifty years later, Taiwan remains a source of apparently irreconcilable difference between Washington and Beijing. Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, now both senior members of the Biden administration’s National Security Council, argued in a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay that Taiwan represented the “greatest unclaimed success in the history of US-Chinese relations”, but that assertion has become harder to maintain in recent months.

“It depends on your definition of success,” said Ivan Kanapathy, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, who served on the National Security Council as director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia under Donald Trump and Joe Biden. “Certainly, we prevented a war for years, but from Beijing’s perspective, they can’t be thinking this is a success. Every day that they don’t have Taiwan is a failure.”

Admiral Philip Davidson, at the time the US’s most senior officer in the Indo-Pacific region, assessed in March 2021 that a Chinese invasion of the island was possible within the next six years. In January 2022 Beijing’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, warned of the danger of military conflict between China and the US over Taiwan. The issue had been deferred, Kanapathy told me, but that is not the same as it being dealt with. “In a similar manner to climate change, we have leveraged the future. We have left a more dangerous situation for future generations.”

The other fundamental disagreement that has persisted through the last half-century is the degree to which China was ever prepared to reform its political system. The idea that bringing China into the “family of nations”, as Nixon put it, would “induce change” and bring about liberalisation in the country has failed to deliver the expected results. 

For instance, critics of China cite its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 as the first in a series of “broken promises” by Beijing to play by international rules and open up its markets, and perhaps some political freedoms too, in return for integration into the global economy. While China’s economy developed rapidly, liberal reforms did not follow WTO membership, and two decades later the CCP has only strengthened its authoritarian control.

“Looking back on the campaign to get congressional support, there’s no doubt in my mind that we oversold it,” said Susan Shirk, who served as Bill Clinton’s deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, and now directs the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “But we did believe, and I still believe, that greater economic openness does create pressure inside China for greater freedom for individuals.”

“The major dispute today is over why China hasn’t become more like the United States,” said Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House think tank. “But in fact, China never intended to become like the United States. If you go back and look at the public record of Deng Xiaoping and China’s other leaders, they never said that joining the WTO would induce political reform.”

But the idea that Beijing has failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and has exploited its access to the international system, has fuelled some of the most pointed attacks from US leaders and lawmakers in recent years. During his 2016 election campaign, Trump frequently claimed that China was “raping” the US, taking its jobs and factories. Joe Biden put it in less crude terms, but he reiterated the same basic belief, that China would “eat our lunch” and was determined to overtake the US as the “most powerful country in the world”.

For Yu Jie, this shift in economic power is the most significant factor in how the relationship has changed, and unravelled, since 1972. At the time of Nixon’s visit, China’s economy was around a tenth of the size of the US’s, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, liberal democracy seemed to be strengthening and spreading across the world.

“It was the… golden age of globalisation,” Yu told me. “America was extremely confident. But now the power parity is very different.” After the global financial crisis in 2008 and the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, which is predicted to overtake the US as the world’s largest by 2030, it is China that is increasingly confident in the strength of its political system.

That growth in confidence was on display at a fiery summit between the US and China in Alaska in March 2021, which exposed how dire relations between the two countries have become. Instead of the expected bland opening remarks, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi delivered a scathing 16-minute tirade and warned his American counterparts that they no longer “had the qualification… to speak to China from a position of strength”. His comments, along with an image of the two sides facing off became a popular meme on social media in China, where the country’s diplomatic “fighting spirit” was celebrated. The US and China have long had their differences and deep disagreements, but unlike in 1972, it seemed this time that neither side was making an effort to hide them.

In the end, even Nixon grew pessimistic about the future of the relationship. He told his biographer he thought conflict between the US and China was inevitable. “It might be a shooting war. It might be an economic war. But [the countries’] interests were fundamentally different over the long term. And eventually they would clash,” his biographer recalled him saying. Nixon said it would be up to his successors to prevent this.

Instead, tensions are steadily growing. Kissinger, who is now 98, has warned that we are “in the foothills” of a new cold war. This time there is no greater enemy, like the Soviet Union, to align against, and popular nationalism on both sides is fuelling ever more combative positions. A US president who attempted to reach out to China today would be vilified by their political opponents as weak, perhaps even treasonous. It is far safer for the leaders of both nations to signal strength and uncompromising resolve.

Half a century after Nixon toured the Great Wall of China and called for the barriers dividing the world – both physical and ideological – to be brought down, those divisions are building once again. A new great wall is going up.

[see also: How China is reclaiming history]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls