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Bush visits 30 years after groundbreaking Nixon summit

Nixon's meeting with Chairman Mao helped lay the groundwork for future Sino-U.S. relations
Nixon's meeting with Chairman Mao helped lay the groundwork for future Sino-U.S. relations  

By Joe Havely
CNN Hong Kong

(CNN) -- On February 21, 1972, on a chilly late winter morning, U.S. President Richard Nixon walked down the steps from Air Force One at Beijing airport beginning a visit which, he said, "changed the world."

Exactly 30 years on from that historic visit, the incumbent U.S. President George W. Bush follows in Nixon's footsteps.

The contrast between China then and now, and of Sino-U.S. relations, could not be greater.

When Nixon set foot on Chinese soil he was the first U.S. president to visit the People's Republic, still widely referred to as "Red China."

Read more about Nixon's visit to Beijing in Cold War, Episode 15: China 

At the time Washington recognized the Nationalist Kuomintang rulers in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.

Thirty years ago, the Beijing airport where Nixon's jet touched down was a quiet, austere place -- its buildings hung with banners lauding the fight against U.S. imperialism.

Today, the aviation gateway to the Chinese capital is bustling with business travelers from across the globe, entering China through an airport dripping with adverts for Western-style consumerism.

In 1972, with China still gripped by the Cultural Revolution, almost all Beijingers wore the standard drab Mao suit and carried copies of the Little Red Book containing the thoughts of the Chairman.

Three decades on, the city is a cosmopolitan capital, its residents dressed in clones of Western fashions and clutching mobile phones.

Cold War powerplay

Nixon's week-long stay in China paved the way to many of these changes and a bilateral trading relationship today worth some $80 billion.

Nixon spent more than 40 hours in face-to-face talks with China's leaders
Nixon spent more than 40 hours in face-to-face talks with China's leaders  

But it was the hard-nosed powerplay of the Cold War strategy that was the motivation for his visit.

By opening the door to Beijing Nixon saw an opportunity to isolate the Soviet Union -- then China's bitter communist rival, and what it saw as its greatest military threat.

In 1971, following a successful round of what was dubbed "ping pong diplomacy", that included a visit by the U.S. table tennis team, Nixon dispatched Secretary of State Henry Kissenger to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit.

Kissenger's visit to Beijing was conducted in total secrecy -- the White House press corps were told his trip was a fact-finding tour to Asia.

When he failed to show up at his scheduled destination they were told he was suffering from digestive trouble and would be resting at a Pakistani mountain resort for a couple of days.

In fact Kissenger was meeting Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, arranging a visit that he said, if successful, would "transform the very framework of global relationships."

The announcement weeks later that the president would fly to Beijing came as a surprise.


Nixon had a reputation as a staunch anti-communist and began his political career closely associated with the McCarthyist "witch hunts" of the 1950s.

At the time of Nixon's visit the People's Republic was still widely referred to as 'Red' China
At the time of Nixon's visit the People's Republic was still widely referred to as 'Red' China  

However, that reputation also enabled him to fend off any criticism that by visiting "Red China" he was in any way going "soft" on communism.

When the time of the actual visit came it was the focus of a massive media operation, covered live by all the American networks.

Pictures of Nixon meeting the ageing Chairman Mao were splashed across newspapers and TV screens around the world.

So too did Nixon's famously banal comment during a visit to the Great Wall. "It is," he said, "a great wall."

During their talks the two leaders played down their threats and rhetoric against each other.

For his part Mao assured his guest that the anti-imperialist slogans that peppered Chinese media and hung from banners across the capital were "empty cannons."

In return Nixon said to the communist chairman that his country had "no territorial designs on China."

The president told his host: "Looking at the two great powers, the United States and China, Nixon... we can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own ways on our own roads."

Truly a 'great' wall Nixon famously declared
Truly a 'great' wall Nixon famously declared  

In all during his week-long stay in Beijing Nixon spent some 40 hours in talks with Chinese leaders, most of them with Premier Zhou, hammering out the future basis for relations.

The landmark visit brought an end to more than two decades of enmity and produced the Shanghai Joint Communique, setting in ink both sides' position that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of it.

The carefully crafted statement stressed the two governments' differences as well as agreements whilst calling for trade, diplomatic and "people to people" contacts.

The document and its joint support for what has become known as "the One China Principle" has formed the basis for Sino-U.S. relations ever since.




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