It was not Richard Nixon who changed relations with China
Not necessarily. The trip was certainly a breakthrough for many things, including the relationship between the United States and China being made peaceful and stable. But it also marked the culmination of new trends in the United States that had emerged over the previous decade. Today, America’s openness to China is a reminder that the American public — not just the Washington elite — shapes America’s relationship with China.
Following the Chinese Revolution of 1949, led by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, the United States refused to recognize the new regime and supported the Republic of China in Taiwan, led by the Chinese Nationalist Party. Washington cut trade and travel ties with the mainland and banned “Red China” from the UN and other international institutions, hoping the policy of “containment and isolation” would cause its collapse. Anyone who opposed it was harassed during McCarthyism.
Americans have lost almost all contact with China, and the result has been deep ignorance and fear about the country. According to a 1964 investigation, 28% of Americans did not know that China was a communist country. Forty percent did not know that there were “two Chinas”, one on the mainland and the other in Taiwan. Yet 86% thought the United States should care about China as a Cold War adversary.
The escalation of the Vietnam War changed the mood. In a 1966 Senate hearing, A. Doak Barnett of Columbia University proposed “containment without isolationas an alternative approach to China, which was sending hundreds of thousands of its troops to North Vietnam to aid war efforts against the United States and South Vietnam. Barnett felt that incorporating China into the international community would weaken its aggressive foreign policy, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Shortly thereafter, Quakers, Chinese scholars, and business leaders created the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a non-governmental organization dedicated to sparking a new national conversation about China. Through scholarly lectures, public lectures, and town hall meetings, he educated the public about Chinese culture, politics, and diplomacy, topics that were considered taboo just a few years earlier. The National Committee, along with the universities, religious groups, and women’s organizations that staged similar events, would have aroused significant conservative anger during the heyday of McCarthyism, but in the Vietnam era, many Americans believed that the nation needed a new China policy.
US government leaders agreed. President Lyndon B. Johnson invited the leadership of the National Committee to the White House in 1968 and he explained that his administration had implemented many of the measures recommended by the group, including a gradual lifting of travel and trade restrictions. . “We are not hidden“promised Johnson, enshrining “containment without isolation” as a new principle of American policy towards China.
Many Americans wanted even more. Some Black Power activists have embraced China as inspiration for their armed struggle against white supremacy. Robert F. Williams, author of “Negroes with Guns”, for example boasted “militant friendshipbetween the American people and the Chinese people while living in exile in Beijing between 1966 and 1969. Influenced by Williams, members of the Black Panther Party devoured “Quotes from Chairman Mao Zedong”—or Mao” — and sold copies for a dollar near the University of California at Berkeley campus.
They were not the only ones to defend China from Mao. The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a group of young Asian studies scholars who criticized the academic establishment’s reluctance of American “imperialism” in Vietnam, wrote prolifically about China, the benchmark of anti-imperialist movements in the world. In 1971, the committee became one of the first groups to be invited to China, and their book, “China! Inside the People’s Republic», the fictionalized life under Chinese socialism. American ideas about China were becoming more sympathetic.
And so, as president, Nixon acted. As soon as he was sworn in, he began to seek a direct line of communication with China, through secret channels in Pakistan, Romania and France. A breakthrough came in April 1971, at the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan. In what would become “ping pong diplomacy,” Beijing invited the tournament’s American players to tour China. A few days after the return of the American team, Premier Zhou Enlai invited Nixon to visit Beijing.
National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger visited Beijing twice in 1971 to lay the groundwork for the summit meeting. Kissinger and Zhou argued over many topics, especially Taiwan and Vietnam, but they agreed on one crucial issue: the threat posed by the “polar bear.” At the time, the Soviet Union was challenging U.S. nuclear superiority while amassing troops along its borders with China, a buildup that accelerated after the 1969 border clash. The much publicized photograph of a handshake between Nixon and Mao shifted the global balance of power.
The United States’ opening up to China was a deft diplomatic move, but it was also made possible by broader changes in American attitudes toward China since the 1960s. Even before “ping-pong diplomacy” , Americans wondered when, not if, the door to China would open. As Mao said, “the world changed nixon“, and not the reverse.
This awareness is important in the current context.
Nixon’s trip to China is celebrated as one of the major milestones in the history of the Cold War and the genesis of American engagement with China. Reviews say this policy was based on the hope, shared by American policymakers for nearly half a century, that interactions with the United States would one day make China “more like us.” Today, the recent US-China rivalry has diminished that hope. Indeed, Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, delivered the pledge “dead.”
But it bears remembering that Americans of all walks of life, not just government officials, ushered in the age of engagement. Today, a tougher policy toward China has been the subject of bipartisan consensus in Washington, but the basic facts of American life — expanding trade with China even amid a global pandemic , the number of international students from China surpassing that of other countries, and Chinese cultural imprints like the Lunar New Year – demonstrate that the commitment is still alive and well.