Seeds of 1972 blossomed into Sino-US friendship

By Yu Jincui

This month marks the 40th anniversary of former US President Richard Nixon's icebreaking visit to China.

In 1972, I had lived in China - in Taiwan - and studied Chinese there, but the Nixon visit was my first time on the mainland. One cannot gain much impression of a place when one is limited to official meetings and sightseeing. Still, Beijing and Shanghai then preserved a great deal of the traditional architecture and character that modernization has erased. I had the sense of stepping back in time and into a society that worked at a slower pace than the outside world.

In 1972, China was in the last throes of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). China was internationally isolated and estranged from both the Soviet Union and the US, both of which it saw as threatening to attack it. China was desperately poor. It sought economic autarky and was not a factor in the global economy. Both Chinese and Americans viewed the Nixon visit to Beijing as a strategic turning point, but neither had any idea how far-reaching its effects would be.

For Americans, who watched the events in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai on television, the President's visit to China was a voyage of discovery to a land few had known and almost none had seen since the establishment of the People's Republic of China 23 years before. Chinese were told to stay off the streets and keep their peace during the visit. They made no fuss of the visit but were aware that something extraordinary was happening.

The immense prestige of Chairman Mao was invoked to legitimize the strategic reorientation that the visit accomplished. Most but not all Americans and Chinese applauded the statesmanship and vision of their leaders. A few on both sides could not overcome past feelings of enmity and were opposed.

The forces that have made China a respected participant in global governance and a major factor in the global economy were first unleashed in February 1972. Within six years, the very limited Sino-US interaction that the Shanghai Communiqué facilitated led to the process of reform and opening-up that has transformed China, its role in the world, and the world itself.

The Nixon visit showed that China and the US were capable of rising above the major differences we had at the time and cooperating for mutual advantage. February 1972 saw the beginning of a process of rapprochement in which, with much hard work by both sides, the differences between us steadily narrowed.

In the following 40 years, we have developed habits of cooperation to replace the mutual isolation of the past. We have gone from enmity to partnership in almost every field of human endeavor. We have come to respect each other, even as we sometimes differ.

Today, there are still a few serious disputes between the US and China but there is far better mutual understanding, differences are much less, and constructive dialogue takes place between us at all levels. The relationship begun by a few officials on both sides in 1972 has grown to have deep roots in the two peoples.

The past 40 years have brought enormous progress in our relations. There will continue to be incidents, arguments, and twists and turns as we move forward but I see no reason that the next 40 years should not register even more progress.

As the recent visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to the US illustrates, our leaders now consider it entirely normal to visit and talk to each other. Both Americans and Chinese have come to understand how important it is for our two countries to explore ways to work together to the common advantage. In 1972, we had no relationship at all. Now we are interdependent. Our interactions, non-existent or indirect 40 years ago, are now the most consequential in the world.

We have come a very long way from the hostile relationship of 40 years ago and we should by now have learned not attribute malevolent intent to each other when our only basis for doing so is speculative or a priori reasoning.

The article was complied by Global Times reporter Yu Jincui based on a written interview with Chas Freeman, a retired diplomat who now chairs a global business development firm, Projects International, Inc. He was the principal US interpreter during President Nixon's path-breaking visit to China in 1972.