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.