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A Look Back at the Opening of China’s Doors: On Watching “Assignment: China—the Week that Changed the World”

July 3, 2012

Not long ago, I watched Mike Chinoy's historical documentary film "Assignment: China—The Week That Changed the World," and it brought back a lot of thoughts and feelings. The many precious scenes and familiar historical figures in the film took me back to that unforgettable history. It was at that moment that China opened its doors and entered the world, beginning on a journey that has continued to this day. My generation was coming of age and starting our journey during that same time.  We were eye witnesses to the earthshaking historical changes that took place. I also happen to be a researcher of the history of this period. My book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary (《晚年周恩来》) has a chapter devoted to Sino-U.S. rapprochement. Below I will share some impressions from the perspective of a scholar of this historical period, and of someone who lived it.

When President Nixon visited China in 1972, I was in the countryside in Henan Province. People there were very poor and could only make a few fen (the smallest unit of the Chinese currency) for a day's work. With one kuai (or yuan, 100 fen) you could buy five jin (2.5 kilograms) of eggs (approximately 40-50 eggs). At that time I'd been away from Beijing for four years, and I really wanted to return to Beijing to have a look, but that was simply an unreachable dream. Nixon's visit, which was a big deal then, brought a little bit of pleasure into our impoverished and dull lives, and became a topic of daily conversation. Because of inefficient transportation, we received newspapers two days late. Nevertheless, every day, when the newspapers arrived, people would fight over them, especially the limited-circulation "Reference News," which people had to line up to read. In addition to reading the newspapers, I listened in secret to Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts. At that time I only had a small radio, but because I was in the countryside there was no electronic jamming, so reception at night was crystal clear. A friend who was in Beijing visiting relatives at the time told me in a letter: "American journalists are all over Beijing, getting into every street and alley." Scenes like this are shown in the documentary film. 

At the time, we educated Beijing youth sent down to the countryside were so overburdened with our daily farm labor that we could barely catch our breath, never mind appreciate the historical significance of this event. But we had a premonition, and were faintly aware that a change had begun that would not only alter our country's destiny, but our individual destinies as well. In fact, the subsequent "opening up"—the true opening of China’s doors—did not start in the Deng Xiaoping era, but with Nixon's visit. What Deng Xiaoping did was build on the foundation of the strategic decision made by Mao Zedong to open China's doors. This was the only thing that Mao Zedong did during the Cultural Revolution that deserves approval. In regards to the relationship between reform and opening up, reform came from opening up. Only by opening up and integrating into the international community was reform possible. If the country's doors were still closed, there would have been no model to follow and certainly no way to begin to reform.

During the Cultural Revolution, my mother was branded a “counterrevolutionary” and imprisoned in Qincheng Prison. I became a "son of a bitch" with no political future. Though I prepared to spend the rest of my life in the countryside, my heart was not resigned to this fate. Every day after finishing my farm work I would read as many books as I could by lamp light. At that time, I saw no future, and I felt so depressed that I even considered defecting. Looking back on that time, it is clear that China's change began with Nixon's visit. Few people realized it at the time, but it became increasingly clear with the passage of time. We could not dream of the huge change it would make in our individual lives. Within months of Nixon's visit, I was allowed to return to Beijing, visit my mother in Qincheng Prison (whom I had not seen for five years), and bid farewell to the Henan countryside.

Geopolitically, Nixon's statement, "This was a week that changed the world," has been borne out. It can be said that Nixon's China visit changed the post-World War II Cold War landscape, from that of a bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union to that of a triangular relationship among the United States, Soviet Union, and People's Republic of China. The United States and PRC joining hands to confront the Soviet Union was a huge change. It was also beneficial to both partners.

At the time, the United States was embroiled in a quagmire with the Vietnam War, which hampered its ability to compete globally with the Soviet Union. And in the 1960s, China was making enemies on all fronts, attacking "imperialists, revisionists, and reactionaries," creating an untenable diplomatic situation for itself. More critically, the Soviet Union had amassed troops on the Sino-Soviet border, putting tremendous pressure on China. These were the reasons why China and the United States buried the hatchet and came together again. And America’s predicament was why the first thing President Nixon said to Mao in their meeting was that, according to Party internal documents, he came to China for the sake of American interests. Mao appreciated Nixon's candor, and responded even more straightforwardly. When meeting later with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Mao gestured and said in poor English: “Hand in hand, we will deal with that son of a bitch!”

It was from this point that the former Soviet Union began its downward path. Its posture went from offensive to defensive, and it would face difficulties domestically and internationally. Two decades later the Soviet communist empire collapsed.

In addition to the two countries' mutual interests, that the United States and China were able to shake hands and make peace was also because Nixon and Mao both had private motives. The journalists who accompanied Nixon to China later discovered that his China trip was an elaborate public relations show to advance his reelection campaign. In fact, China's leaders saw this very clearly at that time. In an internal speech, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai pointed out that this was a diplomatic gamble by Nixon: improve relations with China to facilitate American withdrawal from Vietnam and win himself a second term.

Because of China's own self-interest, Zhou did his best to help Nixon handle the American press, sending reporters away, and preventing them from gathering news about the bilateral talks. U.S. officials played along, telling reporters that this was China, and they had to do things the Chinese way. American reporters complained about this to no end. As depicted in the film, these poor journalists were pushed around like the beads on an abacus, unaware that they were being purposely reined in and had become playthings in the palms of both the American and Chinese governments. 

Not only this, Zhou Enlai also helped quiet opposing voices within the U.S. government. From the start, he cooperated with the White House in excluding Secretary of State William Rogers from the core negotiations. The most important at the time were negotiations on the Shanghai Communiqué.[1] Zhou suggested that he handle this directly with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, with foreign ministry official Qiao Guanhua handling the details of drafting. At the same time, Zhou very skillfully had acting Foreign Minister Ji Pengfei discuss with Secretary of State Rogers unimportant bilateral issues such as tourist visas and emigration. Because Rogers and Ji were equal in rank, the U.S. State Department was unable to make any substantive complaint, even though it was not happy about it. In the final stages of drafting the communiqué, the U.S. State Department began to object. When Zhou learned about the objection, he paid a personal visit to Rogers and praised the State Department for giving a green light to the U.S. ping pong team to visit China, thereby contributing to promoting reconciliation between the two countries.

For Mao, the revolutionary, domestic considerations played a part in his decision to reconcile with the world's leading imperialist power. Five months before Nixon's visit, in September 1971, the Lin Biao incident rocked China. Lin was Defense Minister and Mao's personally selected heir apparent, but ended up plotting to murder Mao, and finally boarded a plane to flee to the Soviet Union. The plane crashed in Mongolia, killing Lin, his wife and son. This event was an enormous shock, and in fact spelled the bankruptcy of the myth of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Mao was dejected, and his reputation severely damaged. Completely stymied, he became ill. In an effort to repair his image, Mao wanted to use a foreign relations victory to cover up his failure in starting the Cultural Revolution.

Still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, with extreme leftist ideology holding sway, China believed itself the most revolutionary society on earth.

One of the reasons for the Sino-Soviet split was that China believed the Soviet Union had abandoned its principles and surrendered to the United States. And because the United States and China had fought against each other in the Korean War, there was deep hatred between the two adversaries. So the sudden shift toward rapprochement with the United States was not only difficult for the Cultural Revolution radicals within the Chinese Communist Party to accept, it was difficult even for the average Chinese people to understand. But Mao used his authority to suppress opposition within the Party and to accomplish this new policy.

As soon as Nixon's plane touched down in Beijing, Mao said that he would meet Nixon personally, making an extraordinary gesture of support for the visit. What outsiders did not know is that Mao was just recovering from a severe illness, and his health was poor. During his meeting with Nixon, emergency medical staff waited outside the meeting room with their equipment, ready to rescue him if necessary. From this we can see the urgency Mao placed on this visit.

How to execute this shift of policy was Zhou Enlai’s job, and he took great pains to manage all the details. Regarding Nixon’s reception, Zhou established the principle of "being neither obsequious nor supercilious, neither too hot nor too cold" (不卑不亢). Domestic propaganda framed Nixon’s visit as the imperialist United States coming to China to sue for peace because of its difficulties at home and abroad. The airport welcoming ceremony was intentionally low key. There was no red carpet, no military gun salute, diplomatic delegation, or organized group greeting ceremony. In addition, Zhou's handshake with Nixon was also carefully designed. The next day, the officially issued photo showed Nixon leaning forward with his hand outstretched just after descending the plane's steps, while Zhou, not moving from his spot, waited for Nixon to shake his hand. At the welcoming banquet Zhou was also deliberately assuming a “neither obsequious nor supercilious” posture. When he toasted Nixon, he made sure that their wine glasses were positioned at the exact same level before clinking. It is important to note that when Zhou received other heads of state, he always lowered his glass to the mid-point of the guest’s glass in toasting to show his respect for the visiting leader.

Something particularly noteworthy is the vantage point provided by this historical documentary on these past events, from an intersection of the past and present, allowing the viewer to examine the past 40 years and reflect on China's future. In watching all the historical tableaus in the film, one can personally feel the enormous changes that have taken place in China. Of course, there are things that have changed and things that have not.

What has changed are the streets of Beijing, which at that time looked like present-day North Korea. Everything was bleak, and people wore the same blue, black, and green-colored clothing. There were few cars on the streets, just bicycles and dilapidated public buses. Forty years later, Beijing is filled with tall buildings and gleaming with material pleasure, and the streets bustle with traffic and commerce. In many ways it even outshines New York.

Though the change is huge, it is only on the surface; a change in hardware. Internally, in terms of software, there has been no substantive change. It is still a one-party state. The Communist Party dictates everything, and average people do not have control over their destiny. Even though China now has the second largest economy in the world, it is lamentable that the Chinese people still have not gained the political rights of modern citizens and the right to choose their own leaders. In this regard, they are not even equal to their counterparts in the fundamentalist state of Iran. This is the side of China that has not changed in 40 years, and this is the source of all the conflicts in Chinese society. For China to become a truly modern country, it must end party dictatorship. 

China has an old saying: The last bit of a task is the hardest to complete. Beginning with Nixon's visit to China, China has come a long way since opening its doors to the outside world and integrating itself into the international community. But the part of the road it has yet to travel is going to be harder. After Nixon visited the Great Wall, he said when proposing a toast that there was a great wall between the United States and China's political systems, ideologies, and value systems, and that the long process of dismantling the wall had begun. It is regrettable that this wall has not yet been completely dismantled. And with China's rapid economic rise, this wall highlights the conflict between China's present political system, and universal values and international standards. Tearing down this great wall that stands between China and mainstream civilization and undertaking social transformation is an historic mission that China must accomplish before it can be fully accepted into the international community. These are my thoughts after watching this historical documentary.


Gao Wenqian is Senior Policy Advisor and Editor-in-Chief of Chinese Publications at Human Rights in China. A former researcher at the Communist Party of China Central Research Office for Documentation, he immigrated to the United States in 1993. He is the author of Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary.

Editors’ note

[1] The Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China was issued by the two countries on February 27, 1972, in which they pledged to normalize their relations, and, in indirect reference to the Soviet Union, that neither should "seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony." 

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