President Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 12. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

— Liu Yawei vividly remembers his shock when as a college freshman, he first heard from morning television news that China had established diplomatic relations with the United States, on Dec. 15, 1978.

“How could it be possible to establish relations with a country we were supposed to overthrow?” he remembers thinking. “Our generation was taught that the United States represented the most rotten form of Western capitalism. But when we saw [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States, we saw skyscrapers and nice American kids on television, and we realized that what we had imagined about this country was twisted and untrue.”

As Washington moves to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba after decades of trying to isolate and overthrow the Castro regime, Chinese people and China experts in the United States have been reminded of a much more momentous opening 36 years ago that has gone down as a seminal moment in global history.

It was not just the popular view of the United States in China that was transformed by the warming relations between Washington and Beijing in 1978, but it also was the entire path of Chinese modern history. The change spurred China’s opening to the outside world, supported its remarkable economic advances in subsequent decades and bolstered no less significant advances in personal, if not political, liberties.

“It is not as though the United States made all that happen, but it removed an enormous obstacle to change in China,” said Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution. “It would have been enormously more difficult for Deng Xiaoping, and a huge array of other actors, to do what they did had the U.S. remained unalterably opposed to any normal relationship with China. It helped make reform viable in China.”

A difficult history between U.S. and Cuba
More than 50 years after the U.S.-imposed embargo, President Obama has announced an effort to normalize ties with Cuba.

(Kennedy Elliott, Julie Tate and Swati Sharma/Staff reports)

The normalization of ties came six years after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, and two years after Mao Zedong’s death. Indeed, the restoration of ties came precisely when Deng was engaged in what Lieberthal calls a “knock-down, drag-out fight” with hard-liners ahead of the crucial Third Plenum meeting of the top leadership that set the course for the reforms that followed.

“It sent shock waves in China,” he said, helping Deng tip the balance in the direction of an open, engaged China. It made the United States a key influence just when China was on the cusp of dramatic change,he said.

David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, argues that U.S. engagement with China was inevitable as Beijing opened to the world under its own momentum. But no one argues that the new relationship with the United States was not important in supporting the reforms that followed.

“The 10 years of the most rapid reforms of the Deng era have been called the greatest net increase in human happiness in any decade in history,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. “During the same 10 years, the United States probably had a greater impact on China than any major nation has had on another in any decade in peacetime. We should take pride in that.”

Richard Bernstein, author of a new book on China and its relationship with the United States, first visited China in 1972 and remembers a country where every aspect of life, from work to love, was closely controlled by the party, where ordinary people had to report to security officials simply to talk to a foreigner, where people had no right to economic advancement and no personal or social liberty. It was, he says, a country of immense poverty and of “melancholy, both materially and spiritually — a genuine totalitarian state.”

Seven years after that visit, Bernstein was in the United States as a journalist to cover Deng’s visit and remembers the shock of seeing China’s “Paramount Leader” attending a Texas barbecue, donning a 10-gallon hat and riding around in a stagecoach.

“Chairman Mao must have been turning in his grave,” he said.

The opening to the United States, Bernstein says, “enhanced the overall atmosphere tremendously, reinforcing the feeling that China was now turning the page on the Maoist path and turning onto a new path.”

In the decades that followed, the United States and its allies brought modern technology and massive foreign investment into China. The United States became one of China’s most important export markets, underpinning the nation’s rapid economic rise; and cultural ties helped cement the enormous advancement in civil liberties that took place.

But it has not been a one-way street. Trade benefitted American companies and American consumers enormously, too, and with hundreds of thousands of Chinese students now enrolled in American colleges, it has enriched the country culturally and intellectually.

But change did not happen the way that some people might have imagined it would. China is still a one-party state, where the news media are muzzled and dissent is ruthlessly quashed. China has become a partner with the United States in some ways but also a powerful rival, geostrategically and economically. Its leadership remains deeply suspicious of Western values even as it pursues a deeper relationship with the United States.

That leads some to wonder whether the policy of engagement has failed in some fundamental way. But that premise, Daly says, is based on a “grotesque caricature” of the reasons engagement ever took place. No one ever argued, he said, that engagement would suddenly transform China into a liberal democracy.

“The argument for engagement has been that it is better than isolation and that it may transform closed societies and totalitarian states over the long term, increasing the chances of mutual peace and prosperity,” he said. “In the case of China, engagement has been a great success. The success is far from complete . . . but the influence of engagement is far from ended.”

But for those who desire evidence of regime change, Francesco Sisci of the Gatestone Institute argues that American engagement with China helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, driving a wedge through the communist bloc that helped isolate Moscow, contain Vietnam and encourage reform. If the engagement had not happened, he argues, the West could still be fighting the Cold War.

Today, former college student Liu is director of the China Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. He is in no doubt that both and China and the United States benefitted immensely from closer ties, and he also has no doubt that the United States and Cuba will also benefit in the years to come. President Obama’s move to restore ties with Cuba may be much less significant than Nixon’s and Carter’s rapprochement with Beijing, but it is nevertheless welcomed by many students of Chinese history.

“There is an argument now that because relations were normalized, the United States not only failed to push China to reform politically but instead enriched the Communist Party, helping the party to strengthen its hold on power,” he said. “Let’s see. For Cuba, the United States tried to punish it by cracking down [on] its economy for 54 years — but it failed. The loss is massive and mutual. Citizens will always be the one that bear the biggest costs.”

Xu Jing, Liu Liu and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.