China’s Love Affair with Richard Nixon

“I have never heard of Watergate,” a close friend told me a few days ago. “All I know is that Nixon was the first president of America to connect with China. He was a great man.” There are very few Americans from the past 50 years who Chinese people will laud and defend as ardently as former President Nixon. To the Chinese, Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in the winter of 1972 was an early landmark in China’s quest to ‘open doors’ and promote development.The visit is also remembered fondly by many here as the first time that an American head of state officially acknowledged that there is only one China.

Of course, it was Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger who laid the groundwork for this important visit. But it is President Nixon that Chinese people talk about the most, praising his willingness to meet with their ‘great leader’ Chairman Mao and his friendship with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. For them, Nixon did a great thing by extending an American hand of friendship to a country that had been isolated from the rest of the world for too long.

While most in China are well aware of Nixon’s untimely fall from grace, many seem to shrug off Watergate as a purely political matter.

“Nixon did not commit any crime” a friend stated. “Whatever happened to him was the fault of American politics. It was a political thing.”  Some of my more ‘well read’ English students have reminded me that Nixon was well respected as a statesman in the years before he died.

It seems that what most impresses Chinese people about President Nixon was his willingness to meet with Chairman Mao. Many feel that Nixon’s trip was a ‘validation’ of Chairman Mao and his heavy handed regime. Whether it was that or simply a smart political move in anticipation of a sickly Chairman Mao’s likely death in the few years following, there is little doubt that Nixon’s trip warmed the hearts of the Chinese people and that it helped push China towards a future path of development and modernization.

3 Responses to China’s Love Affair with Richard Nixon

  1. Fred Laan says:

    Nixon wrote ten books and many books have been written about him.
    But all the same most things one can read about him on the internet are not true. I suppose because of much imagination Americans are just not good in history.
    Both Mao and he agreed that 25 years of separation between China and the US had been too long. The visit had nothing to do with the old age of Mao, but had already been planned by Nixon in 1967. In 1972 however the circumstances for the visit were very fortunate. It was a win win situation for both countries.

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  2. Robert Vance says:

    @J. macklby,

    I have a little theory that Washington knew very well how sick Mao was and decided that it was time to ‘get their foot in the door’ before the ‘Great Leader’ died. Unfortunately, he survived for a few more years but I do believe that Nixon’s visit did have some impact on Deng Xiaoping’s policies later on. It certainly did alot to let the Chinese people know that we were interested in being friends with them even if that particular visit didn’t help them much …

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  3. J.macklby says:

    Nixon’s visit to China was certainly not a valadation of ‘Great Leader’ Mao’s brutal regime, though it conferred on Mao a new credibility that he did not deserve…..Mao reached out to Nixon only when he realized that Maoism had failed to gain any real traction in the world , not even in North Vietnam. Nixon needed to be perceived as a peacemaking world statesman and diplomat as he faced the American electorate in 1972
    Also, though Nixon’s visit did bring a few more Westerners into China, the country remained a vast prison camp for all the Chinese, save for a small coterie of bootlickers whose ‘revolutionary purity ‘could be trusted long enough to let them temporarily out of China for unsupervised family visits.
    The increased Western presence in China did not have any benefits for the Chinese people as long as the monster Mao was still breathing

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