Nixon in China: The week that changed the world
President Nixon greets a young Chinese girl during a visit to West Lake Park in Hangchow on Feb. 27, 1972. Courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library.
Forty years ago, Americans watched as President Richard Nixon and his delegation landed in Beijing to meet with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong. China was still a mystery to much of the world at that time, having been largely closed off to foreigners.
The visit marked the first time that an American president had visited China, and the images and accounts that were filed by a contingent of carefully selected American journalists fed our nation’s curiosity about life in the Communist nation.
Scholars and interested audience members watched two video segments, one comprised of previously unreleased footage of the Nixon visit and the other a compilation of audiovisual materials from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Both are available online
Qiu Shaofang, the Chinese consul-general in Los Angeles, helped open the conference.
Reflecting on Nixon's visit and the impact on U.S.-China relations were panelists Ret. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zak chair of History for U.S. China Relations at Cornell University; Tim Naftali, New America Foundation senior research fellow and presidential scholar; and Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College; and Julia C. Strauss, a senior lecturer in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a visiting researcher at the UCLA Asia Institute, among others.
“I think it’s clear, looking back 40 years, that the world really was changed in a fundamental way by this trip,” said Richard Solomon, president of the United States Institute of Peace
At the time, there were political circumstances that contributed to America’s strategic interest in developing a relationship with China, specifically the Cold War and China’s growing tension with the Soviet Union, which at the time was one of America’s greatest enemies.
Nixon’s visit opened China to the world and to internal reform and national development, said Solomon. Within a relatively short period of time, China went from a largely peasant nation, with 80 percent of its people living in rural area, to an industrialized country with more than half of its population living in urban areas.
Richard Solomon, president of the United States Institute of Peace (left) and James Mann of Johns Hopkins University answer questions.
“It’s really mind-blowing what’s happened to China,” Solomon said. “The whole country has been transformed in a little over one generation.”
In addition to China’s growth as a global super power, Solomon spoke about the ebb and flow of America’s relationship with China over the past four decades.
The 1980s were characterized as the golden era in U.S-China relations, he said. But this changed in the 1990s with the suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square when the world condemned China for its actions and economic sanctions were implemented.
Over the next two decades, the power conflicts that dominated the 20th century gave way to strong economic integration between the two countries that is both beneficial and competitive, said Solomon.
“Today, the U.S. and China are locked into a relationship of economic interdependence. We share security concerns, and we’re the two major world powers most capable of shaping this new international environment to our mutual benefit or to great, great loss.”