A trip to China was like “going to the moon.” Such was the view of Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, on the eve of his February 1972 visit to Beijing.
But for the often-maligned Nixon, the same journey also served as his most significant foreign policy initiative. As the first time a US president had visited the People’s Republic, it was a crucial step towards normalising relations after more than two decades of diplomatic stand off.
Although Nixon’s own legacy is always more likely to be associated with the Watergate scandal than the 1972 journey, a younger member of the family is now doing his best to further Sino-US relations.
The China Daily last week interviewed Devon Nixon, the grandson of the late president’s brother. Nixon junior, who is studying at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, arrives in China after launching two start-up companies. He is not short on confidence, expecting “without question” to build a successful company on the mainland.
He makes the right noises too about being humbled by his great-uncle’s achievements, and his own responsibilities in maintaining the family legacy. Having already taken on leadership of the school’s Student Committee (both Nixon and Mao would have approved with how quickly he has taken over), he says he hopes to foster greater understanding between China and the US.
All rather ambitious, perhaps, and we wonder whether (like most current business school students) he might be better advised to focus on finding a job after graduation.
Nevertheless, his experience shows how much the world has changed. ‘Tricky Dicky’ may have thought China was like the moon; but two generations later, a Nixon is studying there.
Back in the 1970s, contact beween China and the US was minimal. An embargo on Communist goods reaching the American market was also rigidly enforced; US consular officials in Hong Kong even conducted lengthy debates on whether a chicken hatched in the colony from an egg imported from across the border qualified as a Communist one, for instance.
American intelligence officers did their best to monitor Mao’s regime from the British outpost, interviewing refugees, as well as those foreigners who were able to gain access to China. But their understanding of China was limited, as Margaret Macmillan reveals in her account of the 1972 détente, Seize The Hour: When Nixon Met Mao.
Advice on offer to the delegation in 1972 ranged from the functional (passengers on the presidential jet spent much of the inbound trip honing their chop stick skills; the president was also warned to avoid the maotai during official toasts) to the more emotive (China specialists tried to dissuade Nixon’s wife, Pat from donning a crimson coat on arrival in the capital, as they believed the locals associated the colour with prostitution).
In fact, both sides made real efforts to bridge the cultural divide. At the official banquet, members of the US State Department played drinking games with their Chinese counterparts. Meanwhile geriatric Politburo members listened politely to American explanations of the hitherto-unknown game of golf.
The most important session of the trip – an hour’s meeting between Mao and the US president – was thought to have gone well too. Pleasantries and compliments were exchanged. And although Mao avoided substantive discussion – telling Nixon that he now only dealt with “philosophical” questions – the Great Helmsman was generally welcoming.
“I voted for you during your election”, he told the US president, “I like rightists.”
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