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Nixon in China: a week that changed the world

Following years of icy silence between the US and China, on 21 February 1972 president Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing for an unprecedented diplomatic mission. Professor Rana Mitter explores how the two sides viewed an encounter that augured China’s entrance onto the global stage

Published: February 23, 2022 at 4:29 pm
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The moment has been immortalised in music – and a breathtaking piece of stagecraft. In the opening scene of the 1987 opera Nixon in China the presidential plane, named “The Spirit of ’76”, lands onstage. The door opens and out steps the singer playing US president Richard Nixon, greeted by another as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

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When John Adams and Alice Goodman wrote Nixon in China, just a decade and a half after the events it depicted, they recognised that the meeting it recreated was the stuff of grand opera. Rather than merely two politicians coming face to face, it marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one – the moment when two great societies with very different systems finally engaged with each other after decades of silence.

This year marks a half-century since Nixon’s visit. Between 21 and 28 February 1972, he met the ageing Mao Zedong, China’s paramount leader, and negotiated the first stages of the rapprochement between two countries that had no diplomatic ties in 1949, following Mao’s communist revolution.

For Nixon, the mission came at a time when the complex problems of the Cold War were becoming more pressing. He had come to office in 1969 with impeccable qualifications as a Cold Warrior, having made his name as Eisenhower’s vice-president in the 1950s, sent out to do rhetorical battle with the Soviet Union. Yet as president he faced a range of difficulties. The US was in flames, its cities riven with unrest. Overseas, his country was caught in the murderous quagmire of the Vietnam War, unable to defeat its opponents or to withdraw honourably. Nixon had been elected in part because he claimed to have a plan to end that war.

Photo of female soldiers of the People's Army of Vietnam
Female soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam operate howitzers, c1965. By then, US forces were mired in an unwinnable war in the region. (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, friction with the Soviet bloc was building. In August 1968, months before Nixon was first elected president, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to snuff out the “Prague Spring” period of political liberalisation.

Nixon certainly hoped that he could reduce tensions in these hotspots for the US through a policy of detente. And his subsequent efforts to improve relations with China provided an opportunity for a dramatic turn of events that would signal an entirely new sort of diplomacy.

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Remote rapprochement

US politicians of both parties had mooted a thaw with Beijing in the mid-1960s. However, the outbreak of the violent Cultural Revolution in 1966, during which China dramatically scaled back diplomatic relations with almost all outside powers, left little possibility of a rapprochement under Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. Over the following years, the Chinese leadership seemed to be in turmoil. Mao was old, and it was increasingly unclear who would succeed him.

Yet, even in his first weeks and months in office, Nixon began to set in motion the launch of a new policy – albeit discreetly at first. The new US national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was given the task of organising the first visit to China by a US official since the 1949 revolution. In 1971, following mediation by Pakistan, Kissinger flew secretly to Beijing for talks. And on 15 July 1971, Nixon announced his planned trip.


Listen | Rana Mitter talks to Matt Elton about Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and how it changed the course of the Cold War, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Nixon had hoped that, on landing in Beijing on 21 February 1972, he would be greeted by crowds of cheering Chinese people. In fact, he had to make do with a small honour guard – but the significance of the moment was cemented when he shook Zhou’s hand. At a conference in Geneva 18 years earlier, Zhou’s attempt to shake the hand of then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles had been snubbed. Now Nixon made amends.

Nixon’s party was driven through the city centre to meet Mao, who was in jovial mood. The communist leader observed that “reactionaries” had tried to stop the meeting – a reference to figures within China’s leadership who were still firmly opposed to opening up to the imperialist enemy. (Mao also noted slyly that he had “voted” for Nixon in the US election, explaining that he found rightwing leaders easier to deal with.)

Photo of Pat Nixon meeting a Chinese woman
Pat Nixon meets a Chinese woman during the 1972 visit. Such images were useful for her husband’s re-election campaign. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

After Mao’s one and only appearance during the trip, the negotiators spent long hours in meetings to hammer out an agreement. Between those discussions, the visitors were given the VIP tourist treatment. Nixon was famously impressed by the Great Wall, and used it as a metaphor for barriers that could soon fall in the relationship between China and the US. Meanwhile, the first lady visited institutions including schools and factories, providing priceless photo opportunities to boost her husband’s campaign for re-election that year.

At the end of the trip, the two sides issued the Shanghai Communique, pledging to improve relations between the countries. Richard Nixon was in no doubt about the significance of what he had negotiated. “This,” he declared, “was the week that changed the world.”

Nixon in China: the US perspective

The immediate reaction in the US was highly favourable. Nixon had hoped to make a major gesture of statesmanship ahead of the 1972 presidential election (about which the Chinese were very aware), and his visit to China fulfilled that aim to the letter. Nixon won by a landslide and, though the China visit was not the only reason, it certainly burnished his image. Nixon and his national security adviser (later secretary of state) Henry Kissinger took advantage of the new warmth with China to introduce other strategies to lessen tension in the Cold War – notably, the ending of the draft of US soldiers for the war in Vietnam, and a policy of detente with the Soviet Union.

Nixon’s China mission is often regarded as the culmination of a process, and the end of the rift between the US and China. In truth, it was the beginning of a more protracted negotiation. Full diplomatic ties would not actually be confirmed for almost seven years; indeed, during the early and mid-1970s, much of the most visible interaction was cultural rather than political. The most famous manifestation of this was “ping-pong diplomacy”, the exhibition table tennis matches played in China and the US in the months before and after Nixon’s visit.

Photo of Mao Zedong and Henry Kissinger
Mao Zedong greets US secretary of state Henry Kissinger (right) in Beijing in 1975, as president Gerald Ford looks on. (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Nixon himself had little time to develop the diplomatic opening, resigning in 1974 after the Watergate scandal exposed the darker side of his administration. His successor, Gerald Ford, visited China and tasked secretary of state Henry Kissinger with further nurturing relations. However, there were various stumbling blocks – among the most sensitive of which was Taiwan.

In 1949, at the end of China’s civil war, the defeated Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek had fled to Taiwan, where they declared themselves the official government of all China. Despite controlling only Taiwan’s main island and a few offshore territories, Chiang’s government retained the Chinese seat at the United Nations until 1971. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that the US was moving toward recognition of Beijing, but Chiang’s island was a sticking point: China’s communist leaders wanted Washington to abandon his regime completely. Yet even if the administrations of Ford and his successor, Jimmy Carter, had wanted to concede this matter, there were still powerful forces in Congress who demanded that the US should permit Taiwan the capacity to defend itself.

Rather than the end of the rift between the US and China, Nixon’s visit was the beginning of a protracted negotiation

The Carter administration eventually negotiated the opening of formal diplomatic relations with China on 1 January 1979. This was dependent on the agreement in the US of a “One China” policy – though without specifying whether the rule of Beijing or Taipei over that “One China” should ultimately prevail. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, governing America’s relationship with that diplomatically unrecognised but important island, decreeing that the US should give Taiwan assistance to enable it to defend itself. To the anger of Beijing, that act is still very much in operation today.

Nixon in China: the Chinese perspective

Nixon’s visit did not take place at a quiet time for Chinese politics. In 1972, China was still firmly in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, and there were clear divisions about the significance of the Nixon visit.

One faction, led by premier Zhou Enlai, had come to realise that China’s inward-looking take on economics and culture was not sustainable; they believed that the country would have to reform if the CCP was to stay in power. A world in which China was isolated both from the Soviet bloc and the western world was unsustainable and, since relations with Moscow continued to be scratchy following China’s denunciation of Soviet policy from the late 1950s, a pivot towards the huge market that the US offered was a logical step for an economy aiming to re-enter the world of international trade.


Listen | Professor Rana Mitter explores the role of Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution, its impact on China’s population and its legacy today, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


That view was firmly opposed by the Cultural Revolution hardliners, most notably the leaders later dubbed the “Gang of Four”, including Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. They regarded ideological purity as the most important element of China’s politics, so the idea of opening up to the capitalist US proposed by “running dogs” (lackeys) was anathema.

During Nixon’s visit, the faction in favour of opening up was in the ascendant, and Jiang Qing even greeted the Americans. But on the evening before the Shanghai Communique was released, Zhang Chunqiao – one of the Gang of Four – made a speech at the banquet for Nixon’s party, declaring that Shanghai was “maintaining independence” and “relying on our own efforts”. It was a not particularly subtle reminder that not all of the Chinese leadership was happy to see the US president enter the world’s most populous communist state.

In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if China was on an inevitable path to economic superpower status after Nixon’s visit opened up the country. In fact, the years that followed were turbulent. In 1973, Zhou’s enemies launched a campaign obliquely criticising his willingness to open up to the US. By then, he was dying of cancer, passing away just a few months before Mao in 1976. Shortly afterwards, Zhou’s protege Deng Xiaoping was sidelined by the Gang of Four.

Photo of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping accepts a Stetson hat in Texas during a 1979 US visit. (Photo by Getty Images)

Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng, rapidly moved to have the Gang of Four arrested, and the Cultural Revolution was declared over. The next year, 1977, writers and artists were allowed to produce accounts of the horrors they had suffered during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution.

By July of that year, Deng had used his formidable political network to return to power. From 1978, he began implementing major market-oriented reforms and pushed forward with efforts to improve relations with the US. In 1979, following Carter’s recognition of China, he also broke with precedent and travelled to the US – a visit epitomised by a moment in Texas when the diminutive Deng donned a large Stetson hat. The US-China relationship may have been secured diplomatically with the establishment of embassies earlier that year, but the emotional relationship was sealed at that rodeo, signalling a decade of closer ties.

Liberalising culture

During the 1980s, the relationship between the US and China was the warmest it had been since the latter’s communist revolution. American writers and intellectuals were invited to share their ideas to help influence China’s new, liberalising culture. That decade was also the era of Reagan’s confident US, as well as a sclerosis that augured the ultimate end of the Soviet Union and Europe’s communist eastern bloc.

China wanted access to the US market, and was keen to benefit from the sense of possibility that it saw in New York and California. Despite their communist links, the Chinese saw little to tempt them in the Soviet world of Brezhnev and his successors, who were mired in a war in Afghanistan and whose eastern European allies such as Poland were increasingly afflicted by strikes and economic woes.

The US and China are now clear rivals, rather than the “frenemies” they became during the Nixon era

In one of the most remarkable gestures of affinity, the 1988 television programme River Elegy, broadcast to millions of Chinese viewers, proudly showcased icons of American life including the Statue of Liberty. This wave of almost naive pro-Americanism came crashing to a halt with the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Yet despite that bloody crackdown, recent evidence reveals that president George Bush sent national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to visit Deng Xiaoping in secret just a month after the killings, to assure China that the US still wanted to keep the relationship alive. The tradition of angry rhetoric on the surface but an understanding about shared interests in private – evident in the Nixon-Kissinger visit of 1972 – was still very much alive.

Is that still true today? The jury is out. The US and China are now clear rivals, rather than the “frenemies” they became during the Nixon era. In July 2020 Mike Pompeo, then US secretary of state, declared that the “noble” policies Nixon had attempted to implement in relations with China had failed, and that the US must now treat China as a hostile power. That visit of 1972 remains a moment of historic importance – but its significance seems very different today from how it did in that cold February week in Beijing, half a century ago.

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Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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