Mao – Nixon’s historic encounter resonates 45 years later

World Today

Nixon and Mao meeting

45 years ago today, China’s leader Mao Zedong and U.S. President Richard Nixon met to normalize relations between their two countries. Their meeting in Beijing was brief but it set the scene for what’s become the most important economic relationship in the world.

CGTN’s Owen Fairclough reports.

Mao Nixon historic encounter resonates 45 years later

The meeting of China's Mao and U.S. President Nixon still holds weight today. CGTN's Owen Fairclough reports.

China’s Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon forged a new era with one handshake. Their hour-long discussion was a leap into the unknown after decades of hostility.

“It was a huge gamble by both sides particularly by the President the United States who went to the capital of a state that we didn’t recognize,” said Chas Freeman, Nixon’s lead interpreter for the week-long visit to China.

The U.S. had isolated China since Mao’s communist revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Renowned anti-Communist Richard Nixon wanted to reverse course by reaching out to him.

“We must recognize that the government of the People’s Republic of China and the government of the United States have had great differences. We will have differences in the future. But what we must do is to find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war,” Richard Nixon stated half a century ago.

“This was an entirely novel experience for both sides. There were a lot of people in China who did not favor this great opening – there was a lot of tension. There were military men there who had fought against us in Korea — some of whom had lost sons. One could feel the tension. On the other hand, Chinese and Americans find an easy rapport — we get along. We don’t have the same sense of humor but we both have a sense of humor and it was a convivial occasion despite the tension,” Freeman recalled.

Mao and Nixon avoided controversial topics in their meeting. Instead, the U.S. did the hard talk with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as both sides worked on a communique setting out their positions on a range of issues where they disagreed. It wasn’t easy.

“The purpose of that was to reassure allies on both sides that we weren’t selling them out. The Chinese had to convince the North Koreans and we had to convince the South Koreans and the same with North and the South Vietnamese… Those discussions were very rancorous,” said Freeman.

With their work done, Nixon offered his hosts a final toast: “This was the week that changed the world.”

But this diplomatic breakthrough was soon overshadowed by problems back in the U.S. Almost exactly four months after meeting Mao, Nixon’s downfall began here at the Watergate complex when burglars broke in to spy on the President’s Democratic opponents. Facing impeachment for trying to cover up the conspiracy, Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign in office.

Nevertheless, Mao and Nixon had carved a path for successive leaders from both sides to build a relationship that today interconnects two economies accounting for nearly 40 percent of the world’s total output.
But new U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese comments have left some wondering where that relationship is heading.

Perhaps more reason than ever to draw lessons from the past.

Fred Teng talks about the anniversary of the Nixon-Mao meeting

To discuss the 45th anniversary of the Nixon-Mao meeting, Fred Teng the President, of America China Public Affairs Institute, spoke with CGTN’s Mike Walter about the anniversary and current China – U.S. relationship.