Old Version
Cover Story


Chinese expert Zhang Baijia talks about how former US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China can provide insight for current leaders in both countries

By Song Chundan Updated May.1

Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang visits the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to mark the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China, February 24, 2022

Zhang Baijia

When former US president Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in late February 1972, Zhang Baijia was a 23-year-old apprentice in a local cultural troupe. He did not know that both his parents, Zhang Wenjin and Zhang Ying, who served as the head of the department of North American and Oceania Affairs and deputy head of the Information Department, were part of a secret diplomatic team set up to handle Nixon’s visit, which turned out to be one of the most significant events in the history of China-US relations.  

Fifty years later, Zhang is executive vice president of the Chinese Society on the Research of Figures in the History of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He previously served as deputy director of the Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee. On the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s historic visit, Zhang shared his insights on the event and its relevance to the ongoing tension between China and the US.  

Zhang argued that despite the disputes between the two countries and the threat of a new Cold War, the underlining principle that the two countries stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation, which paved the way for the normalization of the bilateral relationship 50 years ago, remains unchanged.  

NewsChina: We know your parents were directly involved in the dramatic turn in the China-US relationship in the early 1970s, and you are now a well-established expert on the history of the China-US relationship yourself. What are your thoughts about the event that reshaped the China-US relationship?  

Zhang Baijia: Nixon’s visit to China 50 years ago marks the beginning of the process of normalization of the Sino-US relations. It is one of the most important events in both China’s and global diplomatic history.  

Although my parents were directly involved, I knew little about the process back then. But I can remember that my parents were very busy and I barely saw them. I remember the city authorities in Beijing were mobilized to clear anti-American posters and slogans on the street. When Nixon actually visited Beijing, the city was quiet and contemplative, and we could feel there would be a big change in China’s relationship with the US.  

Now 50 years have passed and both China and the US, as well as the entire world, have experienced dramatic changes. The change in Sino-US relations, which was so significant and fundamental that people 50 years ago could hardly imagine, has been one of the major factors for the changes of the world over the years. The China-US relationship also went through ups and downs and is now having to deal with some major crises. Many of the diplomats who contributed and witnessed the establishment of formal relations between the two countries have passed away, but their vision, courage, wisdom and efforts should forever be remembered, and we should always be able to draw inspiration for a better future from their legacy.  

NC: Nixon’s visit to China took place during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) with an anti-US stance one of its major underlining doctrines. How did the two countries manage such a dramatic about-turn in bilateral relations?  

ZB: The rapprochement of China and the US was indeed a dramatic event, but I believe it was also an historical inevitability. If you examine it from a long-term perspective, there was historical necessity behind it: as two great countries inhabiting the same world, it was impossible for China and the US to remain in permanent standoff, refusing to recognize and deal with each other.  

From the very beginning of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, China was clear about wanting to establish normal diplomatic relationships with other countries based on equality, reciprocity and mutual respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, including the US. At both the Geneva Conference in 1954 and the Bandung Conference in 1955, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai expressed China’s willingness to reduce the tension between the two countries. But as the US continued to seek to isolate and contain China and adopt a “two-China” stance on the Taiwan issue, the hostility continued. In the 1960s, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations showed some interest in improving ties. But China insisted that the two sides must agree on the Taiwan issue, leading to a diplomatic stalemate.  

But despite the open hostility between the two countries, there are two factors that left space for a future rapprochement. First, neither leaders ruled out the possibility of establishing a normal diplomatic relationship. Second, leaders in both countries had drawn bottom lines regarding the other that they agreed not to cross. As a result, the two countries avoided direct military conflicts after the Korean War. This made it possible for the two countries to ease their tension later.  

It is interesting that both China’s Cultural Revolution and the US’s Vietnam War used the other country as their imaginary enemies. Yet, it was during this time that the two countries reached a rapprochement. What is unusual about the logic of history is that it often bears fruit above and beyond human design. The normalization of the bilateral relationship in the 1970s resulted from mutual desire and it was achieved by leaders who found and took the opportunity at the right time.  

There is no doubt the decision to normalize the bilateral relationship was driven by political realism. When the two countries normalized their relationship, the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. As China became more isolated from the international community, it faced serious threats from the Soviet Union over its national security.  

In the meantime, the US was stranded deeply in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and found itself in a disadvantaged position in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. 
In improving bilateral ties, China and the US shared common interests, which set the foundation for the normalization of the bilateral relationship. When Nixon expressed interest in improving the relationship with China both during his presidential campaign and after assuming the presidency, Mao Zedong astutely noticed the momentum and made up his mind to drastically adjust China’s foreign policy, starting with China-US relations  

NC: In 1972, China established a normal diplomatic relationship with 18 countries, a record in the PRC’s diplomatic history. Some analysts described it as a domino effect. Why?  

ZB: China could not establish normal diplomatic relations with many countries, especially Western countries, because of US interference during the Cold War. When the Nixon administration adjusted its policy toward China, it was a signal that the US policy of isolating and containing China had failed. When the US itself changed its diplomatic stance with China, it was natural that other Western countries sought, sometimes even competed, to establish diplomatic relations with China.  

But in the meantime, it was also the result of China’s long-term efforts to engage with the world guided by its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. In China’s diplomatic history, there were three waves of China establishing formal diplomatic ties with other countries. The first was during the years immediately following the establishment of the PRC, when the country was recognized by many socialist countries and neighboring countries. The second wave came immediately after the Geneva Conference in 1954 and the Bandung Conference in 1955, when China built formal ties with a large number of developing countries in Asia and Africa.  

But during those two decades, few Western countries recognized China. By the end of the 1960s, only six Western countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and France, had formal diplomatic relations with China. In October 1970, China established a formal relationship with Canada, followed by the breakthrough in the China-US relationship in early 1970s, which marked the third wave of establishing diplomatic relationships with other countries.  

By the mid-1970s, not only had China established formal diplomatic relations with all developed countries, it had also established formal ties with many developing countries. China’s diplomatic influence quickly spread all over the world. The transformation of China’s diplomatic landscape set up a solid foundation for China to launch its reform and opening-up policy (in the late 1970s) and to become more active in global affairs.  

NC: After 50 years, the bilateral relationship between China and the US has encountered unprecedented difficulties. What insights can we draw from the “ice breaking” experiences in the early days of their diplomatic history?  

ZB: Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 marked the beginning of a new era for the China-US relationship. When the two countries signed the Shanghai Communiqué at the end of his visit, it opened the door for the normalization of the diplomatic relationship and declared that days of open hostility had ended. Moreover, it marked a major transformation in the global geopolitical landscape, bringing new hopes for achieving peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and the entire world.  

But the communiqué also clarified that the two countries’ stance on the Taiwan issue remained far apart. The Nixon administration did not explicitly recognize the PRC as the only legitimate government of China. It was not until 1979 when the two countries formally established diplomatic relations that the issue was finally solved and the normalization process was completed.  

Looking back at how the two countries established formal ties and how the bilateral relationship has developed, we can generalize about three major underlining factors. First, the normalization of the relationship between China and the US follows the logic of history and the trend of the times and has benefited the people of both countries, as well as peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. Second, China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence is the basis and guiding principle of the China-US relationship, which is manifested in the Three Communiqués signed by the two countries.  

Third, dealing with the Taiwan issue properly is key to the healthy development of the bilateral relationship. China has long made it clear that for any country to establish a diplomatic relationship with China, the prerequisite is to recognize there is only one China, Taiwan is a part of China, and that the PRC government is the sole legitimate government of China. Based on this, the US decided to terminate its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and its treaty of defense commitment with the island and withdraw US troops from Taiwan. Instead, the US would maintain its cultural, commercial and other unofficial ties with the people of Taiwan. But for various reasons, the Taiwan issue remains a major obstacle to the development of the China-US relationship.  

A lot has changed since China and the US established a formal relationship, as China emerged to become the world’s second-largest economy. There are now structural disputes between the two countries which are far more complicated than 50 years ago. But the three factors serving as the foundation of the bilateral relationship still hold true.  

On November 16, 2021, when Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with US President Joe Biden, Xi said that the most important event in international relations over the past 50 years was the reopening and development of China-US relations, which has benefited the two countries and the whole world, and the most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years will be for China and the US to find the right way to get along.  

Xi laid out three principles for China-US relations. First, the two countries need to respect each other’s social systems and development paths, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and respect each other’s right to development. They also need to treat each other as equals, keep their differences under control, and seek common ground while maintaining and safeguarding their differences. The second principle is peaceful coexistence, with no conflict and no confrontation a bottom line that both sides must hold. The third principle is win-win cooperation. Given the interdependence between the two countries, China and the US stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.  

The challenges for the bilateral relationship now exist at three levels: bilateral, regional in the Asia-Pacific, and global. To shape the ChinaUS relationship to suit the new times, it requires patience and wisdom from the leadership of both countries, and the courage to think outside the box. To construct a lasting bilateral relationship, the two great countries should be capable of transcending past history.

Former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger attends a banquet marking the 30th anniversary of Sino-US PingPong diplomacy, Beijing, March 18, 2001

David Kennerly, former chief White House photographer, stands on the roof of Shanghai’s Broadway Mansions, December 29, 2017. He is holding a photo taken from the same spot in 1972