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Feb 21, 1972 - The week that changed the world


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Feb 21, 1972 was the week Richard Nixon said that changed the world. On that day, Nixon stepped off Air Force One right into the hands of Zhou Enlai in front of a live worldwide television audience. In order to ensure that Nixon and Zhou Enlai were the only two seen in television images of the handshake, Nixon loyalists made sure that no other member of his entourage that day, including Kissinger, would step out of the plane until the handshake is complete.

All of us know the impact of Nixon's visit to China on the world today. But the details of the events that paved the way for Nixon's visit was shrouded in complete secrecy to ensure no one will know of his planned visit. Not even the State Department knew of what he planned to do.

In the summer of 1971, Kissinger paid a visit to Pakistan. During the conversations with Pakistani officials, Kissinger faked a stomach ache and said he needed to go to the hospital for checkup. When all the reporters dropped out of sight, he quickly boarded a Pakistani jet and flew to China to meet with Zhou Enlai. In Beijing, he relayed a one word message back to Nixon in Washington, "Eureka", meaning success. Kissinger also told Nixon that Zhou was one of the two or three most brilliant men he has met in his lifetime. Zhou could read his mind. Before Kissinger could finish what he was saying, Zhou cut him off and said the matter has been taken care of.

Four days later on July 15, Nixon announced to a stunned world and the American public that he was going to visit China. The announcement sent shockwaves across Asia. Later that year in October, Taiwan was excluded from the United Nations with the passage of UN Resolution 2758. Obviously the ROC government was outraged. During the riots there, the US ambassador to Taiwan was mobbed by angry civilians as he was inside his car. The mob lifted the car while he was in it, and dropped it back to the ground repeatedly.

During Nixon's six day trip in China, he remarked to Mao "those on the right can do what those on the left can only talk about." Mao replied, "I like rightists".

Nixon acknowledged in the resulting Shanghai Communique that there is only one China, and that Taiwan was a part of China. However this was just an acknowledgment (承認) and was not an endorsement by the US on which government was the rightful ruler of China.

The result of the trip opened China to the world in the last days of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. When Admiral Yamamoto attacked Pearl Harbor 30 years earlier, he remarked "We have just awakened a sleeping tiger". The same might be said of Nixon's trip. Without it, we will not likely be on this forum today.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 3 weeks later...
but what's the big significance?

Looking back, the Shanghai Communique may have caused more problems than it was intended to solve. Then we had the world's superpower backing the PRC claim that Taiwan is part of China. Today Beijing now has 'ammo' in the form of this Communique with regards to Taiwan being part of China.

From an objective standpoint, that makes it harder for the island to breakaway.

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I have often pondered whether Nixon's rapprochment with China was even a good idea in the long run. Clearly, it helped win the Cold War, and perhaps had a positive effect on China's domestic politics by making China less radical and introverted. But it didn't solve many of the huge long-term issues that have faced every administration since Nixon.

Of course, to be fair, I suppose Nixon wouldn't have been able to predict in 1972 the way Taiwanese society has since re-oriented its identity politics in a less sino-centric way, with horrible consequences for the US.


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The PRC-US breakthru only shows that there is no eternal friend and eternal enemy.

When Mao suggested to make friend with US in 1971, PRC was at the peak of extreme leftism. The Gang of 4 was in charge and daily bombarding of "Soviet Revisionism" was highlighted everyday on People's Daily.

On the other hand, Nixon was one of the most diehard right wing GOP politician and a good friend of Senator Goldwater.

Anyhow, it was Mao and Nixon who decided to make the breakthru. At that time, nobody in CCP other than Mao and nobody in GOP other than Nixon, could make such U-turn decision without dire political consequence.

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  • 5 weeks later...

I had read that a Taiwanese interpreter for Nixon had told the mainland that Nixon was interested in opening up relations long before Kissenger went on his secret mission. In fact that may have led the groundwork for Kissenger's trip. Equally shameful was that Kissenger sold out the Tibetan resistance in the name of relations.

These people in DC were also the architects of the Vietnam war, all shameful.

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