The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It wasn’t Richard Nixon who changed relations with China

The American public has played a key role in fostering engagement — and still can

Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972. (AP)

Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 28, 1972, President Richard Nixon was triumphant. After a week of meetings with the Chinese, he signed the Shanghai Communique. It declared that the United States and the People’s Republic of China, having collided over Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, were no longer enemies. The Cold War was never the same again. China, once a socialist “brother” of the Soviet Union, was becoming a “tacit ally” of the United States.

Before departing Shanghai for Alaska, Nixon gushed that his trip to China was a “week that changed the world.”

Was it?

Not necessarily. The trip was certainly a breakthrough for many things — not least the relationship between the United States and China, made peaceful and stable. But it also marked a culmination of new trends in the United States that had emerged in the previous decade. Today, the U.S. opening to China serves as a reminder that the American public — not just the elite in Washington — shapes U.S. relations 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, ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party. Washington cut trade and travel ties with the mainland and barred “Red China” from the United Nations and other international institutions, hoping that the policy of “containment and isolation” would induce its collapse. Anyone who demurred was hounded during the era of McCarthyism.

Americans lost almost all contact with China, and the result was profound ignorance and fear about the country. According to a 1964 survey, 28 percent 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 on Taiwan. Yet 86 percent believed that the United States should be concerned 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 isolation” as an alternative approach to China, which was sending hundreds of thousands of its soldiers to North Vietnam to assist the war efforts against the United States and South Vietnam. Barnett reasoned that incorporating China into the international community would defang its aggressive foreign policy, especially in Southeast Asia.

Shortly after, some Quakers, China scholars and business executives established the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nongovernmental organization devoted to spurring a new national debate on China. Through scholarly conferences, public lectures and town hall meetings, it educated the public on Chinese culture, politics and diplomacy, subjects that had been considered taboo just a few years prior. The National Committee, as well as universities, church groups and women’s organizations that hosted similar events, would have aroused significant conservative ire in the heyday of McCarthyism, but in the age of Vietnam, many Americans believed that the nation needed a new China policy.

U.S. government leaders agreed. President Lyndon B. Johnson invited the National Committee leadership to the White House in 1968, and he explained that his administration had implemented many of the measures that the group recommended, including a gradual lifting of travel and trade restrictions. “We are not hidebound,” Johnson pledged, enshrining “containment without isolation” as a new principle of U.S. policy toward China.

Many Americans wanted even more. Some Black Power activists embraced China as a source of inspiration for their armed struggle against white supremacy. Robert F. Williams, author of “Negroes with Guns,” for example, extolled “the militant friendship” between 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 “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong” — or “Mao’s Little Red Book” — and sold copies for a dollar near the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

They were not alone in their advocacy of Mao’s China. The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a cluster of young Asian Studies scholars who criticized the academic establishment’s reticence about U.S. “imperialism” in Vietnam, wrote prolifically about China, the lodestar of anti-imperialist movements around the world. In 1971, the committee became one of the first groups to be invited to China, and its book, “China! Inside the People’s Republic,” romanticized life under Chinese socialism. American ideas about China were growing more sympathetic.

This was most visible in the Gallup poll on China’s admission to the United Nations. In 1954, only 7 percent of Americans supported the idea. In 1971, on the eve of China’s entry into the U.N., that number had grown to over 50 percent, although few acquiesced in Taiwan’s expulsion. Nixon’s often-quoted line in his 1967 article in Foreign Affairs — “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation” — reflected the collective wisdom of the time.

And so, as president, Nixon took action. 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, during the Table Tennis World Championship in Nagoya, Japan. In what would become known as the “ping-pong diplomacy,” Beijing invited American players at the tournament to take a tour of China. Days after the U.S. team returned home, Premier Zhou Enlai extended an invitation to Nixon to visit Beijing.

National security adviser Henry Kissinger flew to Beijing twice in 1971 to lay the groundwork for the summit meeting. Kissinger and Zhou wrangled over many subjects, particularly Taiwan and Vietnam, but they did agree on one critical issue: the threat posed by the “polar bear.” At the time, the Soviet Union was challenging U.S. nuclear superiority while also amassing troops along its borders with China, a buildup that had accelerated after the 1969 border clash. The well-publicized photograph of a handshake between Nixon and Mao altered the global balance of power.

The U.S. opening to China was a skillful diplomatic stunt, but it was also made possible by broader shifts in American attitudes toward China since the 1960s. Even before the “ping-pong diplomacy,” Americans were debating when, not if, the gate to China would swing open. As Mao said, “the world changed Nixon,” not the other way around.

This realization is important in today’s context.

Nixon’s trip to China is celebrated as one of the major milestones of Cold War history and the genesis of U.S. engagement with China. Critics say that this policy was predicated on the hope, shared by U.S. policymakers for almost half a century, that interactions with the United States would one day make China “more like us.” Today, the recent U.S.-China rivalry has diminished that hope. Indeed, Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, pronounced engagement “dead.”

But it is worth remembering that Americans from all walks of life, not just government officials, ushered in the era of engagement. Today, a tougher policy toward China has gained bipartisan consensus in Washington, but basic facts of American life — expanded trade with China even in the midst of a global pandemic, the number of international students from China exceeding that of other countries and Chinese cultural imprints such as Lunar New Year — demonstrate that engagement is still alive and well.