Do Flying Tigers change their stripes?
If that sounds like a puzzling fortune cookie riddle, listen to Anna Chennault, for more than 30 years an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist government, who tonight was completing her first visit to Peking since 1948.
"I feel we have to reassess our positions," said the widow of U.S. Air Force general Claire Chennault, who commanded the famous Flying Tigers of China during World War II.
For Anna Chennault, the Washington hostess and prominent Republican who left her native China with her husband when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, that amounts to a large concession.
Her return to Peking on behalf of the Republican Party after decades of staunch support for the nationalist government on Taiwan has generated considerable curiosity here.
"Everyone in politics and international affairs keeps an open mind," she said at a press conference in a plush Chinese government guest house just 15 months after denouncing U.S. normalization of relations with Peking as "a marriage of convenience."
"You look at the world in reality," of President-elect Reagan and current chairwoman of the Republican Heritage council. "Today we recognize that the United States cannot afford to be isolated."
Does that mean, she was asked, that Deng Xiaoping, China's principal leader, with whom she met for more than two hours this morning, is not such a bad guy?
"I think people always learn," she replied, "and if you don't, you always stay in the same position."
If her careful remarks represent some sort of conversion for Chennault, who continues to maintain close ties with Taiwanese officials and the surviving family of Chiang Kai-shek, she made clear that it is at most a partial one.
While skirting questions about U.S. political contacts with Taiwan, she pointed out that the island government remains an important U.S. trading partner and noted that she plans to visit Taipei Monday with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and his wife.
When asked if she planned to serve as a bridge between the governments of China and Taiwan, she replied, "At the time, I am not privileged to say."
Chennault, who was born in Peking the daughter of a prominent university professor, called her visit here a "sentimental journey," bringing back memories of her childhood, the Sino-Japanese War and the private airline she operated with her husband in Shanghnai after he retired from the Air Force.