Nixon in China: 50 years since the visit that changed the world

By Jesus Centeno

Beijing, Feb 17 (EFE).- In the midst of the Cold War, US President Richard Nixon suddenly traveled to China for a face-to-face meeting with Mao Zedong that brought together two powers then at odds with the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

Today, Beijing and Moscow toast to their friendship before Washington.

Accompanied by his wife and an entourage of advisers, Nixon undertook the unexpected visit on Feb. 17, 1972, via Hawaii and Guam before landing in Shanghai and finally Beijing, where a few hours after his arrival he knocked on Mao’s door.

That US tour of China ended decades of antagonism with a unique face-to-face in which an aging Mao – who had just overcome a chest infection and had heart problems – received his counterpart, joking that he would voted for him in the last elections.

In about 65 minutes, both leaders fawned over each other, made several strokes about the thaw, and berated the USSR.

Before returning to his dressing gown, Mao left the details to Zhou Enlai, his prime minister since 1949, and gave his blessing that he liked right-wing people “because, unlike the left, which says one thing and then does the opposite, they make things happen.”

Nixon’s popularity plummeted in his country as the Vietnam War dragged on, one of the main reasons he planned this trip, according to Chinese analyst Víctor Gao, who was Nixon’s translator in 1985 during his second visit to the country.

“The United States was locked in a war with a country that China was helping. Nixon knew that without support from Beijing, the conflict would never end. He did not underestimate a China that had already shown great resistance in the Korean War,” he said.

Mao had just rejected the tutelage of the Soviet Union, which he described as “revisionist” and with which he almost came to blows after a strong territorial dispute in the summer of 1969.

“It was a China closed in on itself, in the midst of a great ideological struggle – in reference to the Cultural Revolution, which left thousands of deaths – and unable to develop,” Gao said.

According to the analyst, Nixon’s visit unleashed, with Mao already deceased, a stage of reforms once China understood “it should now integrate into the international community.”

To build bridges despite US sympathy for Taiwan, an island that China still claims today, Nixon turned to his adviser and future State Secretary Henry Kissinger, who signed the so-called Shanghai Communique. In it, Washington recognized – but did not endorse – the One China principle, according to which Beijing is the only Chinese government.

China and the US ended formalizing relations in 1979, but by then the Watergate scandal had already affected Nixon, of whom a positive image is still kept in Beijing.

“He opened the door for us to meet again thanks to his vision, courage and wisdom. He turned two enemies into partners,” Gao said about the former president.

The analyst said Nixon was “very inquisitive” and that he was impressed by his interview in the 1980s with Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the Chinese opening.

“Deng spoke of the China of the next 50 years, and Nixon complained that in his country politicians could only look at the short term,” Gao said.

“He was one of those who constantly took notes and checked the translations in detail. I know they didn’t like him in the US, but he was a very diligent, elegant, hard-working and well-read guy. A much more cultured president with a vision of the state that I never returned to to see later in any other American politician,” he said. EFE


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