Nixon’s dance with the chairman

  • Themes: America, China

In February 1972, President Richard Nixon landed in China for a meeting that would set the stage for over fifty years of both economic integration and political antagonism.

A performance of John Adams's opera Nixon in China.
A performance of John Adams's opera Nixon in China. Credit: Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

On the morning of 21 February 1972, Richard Nixon landed in China. For seven days, the American president and first lady, Pat Nixon, toured the country, which for decades had been not just an ideological adversary but also virtually closed to the Western world. Nixon and Chairman Mao had scored a geopolitical breakthrough. Only a few years later, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, began introducing capitalism to his country – which led to an extraordinary amount of commerce with the United States and other Western countries. Fifty-two years later, this remarkable bloom is wilting.

‘The most important thing about that visit is that it occurs, and that the Chinese and the United States will have begun a process of, shall we say, getting to know each other. Now, this is not said in any sense of sentimentality… No one in this world knows how great the gulf is between their philosophy and ours, their interests and ours. But also no one in this world, I think, knows better than I do how imperative it is to see that great nations that have enormous differences, where you’ve got the nuclear thing hanging in the balance, have got to find ways to talk, get along.’

It was 26 January 1972, and Nixon was speaking to his advisors Alexander Haig and J. William Middendorf in the Oval Office. He had to convince them, and perhaps most importantly the nation and himself, that his pioneering trip to China was the right thing to do. The trip was less than a month away, and no US president had undertaken an initiative like it. China was an ideological foe, an on-and-off partner of the Soviet Union.

Nixon knew that if the deep freeze between China and the United States was ever going to change, someone had to take a risk, and he decided that it would have to be him. He had already sent Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, on a secret trip to China to lay the groundwork for his own. Now, on 21 February, the president and first lady landed in Beijing. Soon thereafter, they were received by the fearsome Chairman Mao. From the beginning of their meeting:

Nixon: ‘You read a great deal. The Prime Minister said that you read more than he does.’

Mao: ‘Yesterday in the airplane you put forward a very difficult problem for us. You said that what it is required to talk about are philosophic problems.’

Nixon: ‘I said that because I have read the Chairman’s poems and speeches, and I know he was a professional philosopher. [Chinese laugh.]’

Mao: (looking at Dr. Kissinger) ‘He is a doctor of philosophy?’

Mao and Nixon, complemented by Kissinger and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En-Lai, went on to have a long conversation that was interchangeably substantial, philosophical, even light-hearted. The chairman was a murderous ruler whose reign had cost countless Chinese their lives, but Nixon’s conviction that the world needed rapprochement between the United States and China turned out to be prophetic. So seminal was Nixon’s visit to China that the composer John Adams turned it into an opera. Nixon in China has entered the canon and remains popular with audiences, a rare feat for a contemporary opus.

When Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao in 1978, he decided that China needed a bit of private enterprise and introduced a few capitalist islands in his country, closely supervised by the government. It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice, Deng liked to say, and he soon expanded his capitalist experiments. By the mid-1980s, Western companies in different sectors were setting up operations in China – under strict rules. And so it continued. By the early 1990s, China was the place to be for all manner of Western companies, which could manufacture cheaply and efficiently there and sell to the country’s rapidly growing middle class and, indeed, to the rest of the world. Since then, Made in China labels have been ubiquitous on every kind of product, from t-shirts to iPhones.

In recent years, Xi Jinping’s government has tried to phase out the low-tech Western manufacturers and focus on high tech. Indeed, his regime has taken an increasingly heavy handed approach to the private sector. Western businesses and governments have concluded that China will never have a truly free market; on the contrary, the Chinese economy’s freest times have already passed. The best times in China’s relationship with the United States and the wider West have passed, too – the result of inevitable misunderstandings, but perhaps mostly of commercial proximity that was too much of a good thing. Today a philosophical meeting between Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden of the kind Nixon had with Mao seems impossible.

In many ways, Nixon was a flawed leader, but in foreign policy, he was a strategic and often unorthodox thinker. Would China’s role in globalisation – and our resulting prosperity – have been possible without him?


Elisabeth Braw