Good evening. A half century ago, Henry Kissinger pulled off a secret visit to Beijing, paving the way for President Nixon’s visit a year later and the gradual opening up of China to U.S. investment, engagement and dialogue. It was a significant turning point, and one that we felt worthy of commemorating and exploring in depth both because of what it ushered in and how much has changed since. This issue, we have a cover essay from Orville Schell on what made the secret trip possible (and if it could be repeated today); a collection of prominent Chinese and American voices reflecting on the impact in their lives of the Kissinger and Nixon trips; a reported piece on how the presidents of the U.S. and China communicate today (hint: not particularly well); a Q&A with Winston Lord that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the secret visit and its preparations inside the White House; and a personal essay from Jianying Zha remembering how the news of a Nixon visit was greeted by everyday Chinese citizens. If you’re not already a paid subscriber to The Wire, please sign up here.
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On July 8, 1971, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, arrived in Pakistan. But instead of taking a limousine to the Pakistani president’s mountain retreat — as he was officially scheduled to do — a decoy was sent in his stead, and Kissinger folded himself into a lowly, red VW bug at 4:00 a.m. and drove to a military airport. There, he and his team boarded a Pakistani International Airlines jet and secretly took off for Beijing to discuss normalizing relations between the U.S. and China for the first time since 1949. In his cover essay this week, Orville Schell deftly recreates the context and characters involved in this historic trip, before asking: With the two countries again at a nadir, would a reprise of Kissinger-esque negotiations work again?
President Nixon’s visit to China wasn’t just a geopolitical event; it also had a profound impact on the lives of many young Chinese and Americans. As part of our edition marking the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, which paved the way for Nixon’s trip in 1972, The Wire asked several Chinese and American citizens who are prominent in their fields — from diplomacy and academia, to the arts and sports — about the impact of the event on their lives and their views on how relations between the U.S. and China have since developed.
As a former ambassador to China, Winston Lord was the subject of The Wire‘s very first Q&A more than a year ago. But in this week’s interview with David Barboza, he talks about his experience in 1971 as special assistant to then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Lord recounts how he and Kissinger prepared for, and then pulled off, their now-famous secret visit to Beijing, and why it caused a “geopolitical earthquake.”
Illustration by Lauren Crow
Since coming to office in January, President Biden has only spoken once by phone with his counterpart Xi Jinping. As Katrina Northrop reports, the seemingly routine procedure of formal leader-to-leader communication is particularly difficult when it comes to China. And now, given how tense U.S.-China relations are, there is concern in Washington about how the two sides would communicate during a crisis, such as a clash over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Jianying Zha was 11 years old and living in Beijing when she heard the news: Nixon was coming to China! In this personal essay, the nonfiction writer and journalist describes the mood inside China, which was in the depths of the Cultural Revolution at the time, ahead of the monumental visit. “Disbelief and bewilderment,” she writes, “soon turned into a mood of excited curiosity. In the ensuing months, Beijing was full of speculative whispers; even my father in his letters home [from a labor camp] couldn’t resist asking for some Nixon gossip. The government issued guidelines on the proper attitude we should all display toward the American visitors, such as the catch phrase “不卑不亢, 不冷不熱” — ‘not obsequious, nor arrogant; not cold, nor hot.'”
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