Forty-three years ago this week, President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China. It was 1972, and I was a junior high student at Karachi American School in Karachi, Pakistan. I remember our social studies teacher taking us to the US Consulate where we were able to watch news reports of the visit (some live, some taped). Even as a young teenager I knew it was a momentous occasion.
Of course no one knew at the time (probably not even Nixon himself) how much things would change, not simply in regards to US-China relations, but within China itself over the next 40 years. And I certainly never imagined that I would spend a good portion of my adult life living there!
What we also didn’t know at the time was that Pakistan had played an important role in the trip. The year before, Henry Kissinger had feigned an illness during a visit to the country, and while the world thought he was resting in his hotel, he snuck onto a plane and flew to China to lay the groundwork for the trip.
Since Chairman Mao was still alive at that time (barely), the changes wouldn’t come right away. Following his death in 1976, and the rise to power of Deng Xiao-ping, however, China would set out to re-invent itself. It’s doubtful that they could have done that without a re-engagement with the world; and the Nixon visit and the subsequent re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States was the first step in that re-engagement.
The website All Day has posted a collection of photos of Nixon’s visit. This one is my favorite. Wouldn’t you love to know what the President was thinking as he stared intently at his chopsticks? (“Oh no, not kung pao chicken again!”)
If you’re interested in reading more about this historic week and the changes that followed, I’d recommend the following excellent books:
Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret Macmillan.
On China, by Henry Kissinger