Archive for Thursday, February 21, 2002

China much changed since Nixon visit

February 21, 2002


— On a chilly February day, the American president arrived at a Beijing airport hung with banners denouncing imperialism.

It was 1972, and Richard Nixon was looking for official ties with communist China after decades of hostility. A thaw began, and a former congressman named George Bush came as U.S. envoy. His son, George W., visited Beijing on vacation.

Today, 30 years to the day after Nixon's arrival on Feb. 21, 1972, George W. Bush returns to Beijing as president, landing at an airport where advertising for Western mobile phones and designer clothes have replaced revolutionary slogans.

Chinese state media are playing up the anniversary of the Nixon visit, a turning point that has led to wide-ranging business, political and personal ties.

It's part of a Chinese air of welcome for Bush, temporarily setting aside rancor over human rights and other disputes.

State newspapers are reprinting photos of Nixon meeting communist founder Mao Tse-tung and exchanging toasts with Premier Zhou Enlai. The official Xinhua News Agency has run reminiscences by surviving participants in their 70s and 80s.

Nixon began reaching out to China in 1971, hoping for an alliance against their mutual Soviet enemy and help in ending the Vietnam War.

American table tennis players had visited Beijing that year, in what reporters dubbed "ping pong diplomacy." Its success apparently encouraged Beijing to pursue contacts.

No U.S. official had openly set foot on the mainland since the 1949 revolution. The separation had been deepened by the Korean War, when the two governments fought on opposing sides. Washington recognized the Nationalist dictatorship of Taiwan as China's government.

Having begun his political career as an anti-communist, Nixon surprised Americans by announcing on July 15, 1971, that he would go to China.

His national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had been to Beijing in secret and said successful talks would "transform the very framework of global relationships."

Nixon arrived in a Beijing still in the grip of the ultraleftist Cultural Revolution. Kissinger had found leaflets in his hotel room calling for the overthrow of the "American running dogs."

Banners at the Beijing airport quoted Mao denouncing imperialists  and by implication, the United States.

"They had been there for years and were not moved (just) because someone from what was considered an imperialist power had come," Xinhua said.

On his first day in Beijing, Nixon met Mao for a wide-ranging, 70-minute talk. The 88-year-old Chinese leader was ill, and Xinhua said doctors waited in the next room.

Nixon's visit produced the "Shanghai Communique," which called for trade, diplomatic and "people to people" contacts.

It left open the tougher questions of formal diplomatic recognition of the communist government and the status of Taiwan.

Nixon didn't get help in Vietnam, but the two sides agreed to collaborate in anti-Soviet surveillance. Washington built listening posts in China's desert northwest.

Washington finally broke ties with Taiwan in 1979 and recognized Beijing as the government of China.

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