Nixon Returns From China

Nixon Returns From China

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After returning from his historic trip to China, President Richard Nixon meets with a group of Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room on February 29, 1972, and in a recorded conversation discusses the importance of opening the lines of communication with the communist nation.

Difficulties in the Back Channel (February–April 1971)

It was at this point that the White House conversations about SALT began. The first arms-control related discussion, on 16 February, touched on the most critical issue then pending in the SALT negotiations: the relationship between ballistic missile defenses and strategic offensive forces. While preparing for a presidential press conference to be held the following day, Nixon and Kissinger discussed how to answer questions about SALT, especially in light of the intelligence community's recent assessment of the growing threat posed to the United States by multiple warheads on the Soviet SS-9 ICBM. They agreed that Nixon should emphasize that no meaningful arms control would be possible without control of both offensive and defensive weapons (Conversation 450-011, PRDE Excerpt B).

From February through the end of April, the White House conversations about SALT were typically brief and interwoven with other topics. Arms control was hardly the main concern in the Nixon White House during the winter and spring of 1971. Rather, Vietnam dominated the administration’s foreign policy agenda. The controversial South Vietnamese ground offensive in Laos, supported by American airpower and logistics, was still under way. Major springtime protests against the war were being planned across the nation. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was actively engaged in efforts to reach a Middle East peace settlement, while he and Kissinger battled behind the scenes to control the national security apparatus. Nixon and Kissinger, unknown to Rogers and the rest of the government, were also seeking a political opening with the People’s Republic of China. On the domestic front, the 1970 midterm elections were a mixture of gains and losses for Nixon and the Republicans in Congress and in the states, and the President was gearing up for what he believed would be a difficult reelection campaign.

That said, the White House conversations reveal Nixon’s recognition that the success or failure of SALT would have major implications for the President’s ambitious foreign policy agenda and his domestic political standing. Kissinger had initially expected that a formal U.S.–Soviet understanding on SALT would emerge quickly from the back-channel discussions, once (in his view) Dobrynin had agreed in early February to the basic American position linking offensive and defensive forces. Such swift progress, however, did not occur.

Kissinger, for the most part, continued to express confidence that an arms control agreement would eventually be reached. The Soviets, in Kissinger’s judgment, needed to make a deal their leadership had a domestic situation as complex as Nixon’s and perhaps more intractable. The nascent U.S. opening with the Chinese had also given Nixon maneuvering room with the Kremlin. Kissinger’s own reputation as an effective negotiator was at stake in the back channel. The President, for his part, adopted a more skeptical tone—perhaps as a psychological defense mechanism if the talks failed, or as a device to allow him to rein in Kissinger (Conversation 481-007, PRDE Excerpt A).

Kissinger explained to Nixon that progress on SALT in the back channel had been difficult because, according to Dobrynin, the Soviet leadership was preoccupied with the 24th Soviet Party Congress (30 March to 9 April 1971). Dobrynin was away in Moscow during much of February–April 1971, and the Oval Office conversations reflect Nixon and Kissinger’s anxiety as they waited for his return with an authoritative response from the Kremlin on SALT. Both men believed that the Party Congress likely would determine fundamentally the future composition of the Soviet leadership and its approach to arms control. Nixon concluded that there was a fight in Moscow between hawks and doves, with the military resisting arms control but the civilians appreciating the need for détente because of Soviet economic difficulties and because of the Chinese problem (Conversation 245-006, PRDE Excerpt A). After the completion of the Congress, Nixon and Kissinger noted some positive developments: the emergence of Leonid Brezhnev as the leading figure in the Soviet leadership, and Brezhnev’s apparently conciliatory tone at the Party Congress towards the West and arms control (Conversation 479-002).

SALT and American Foreign Policy

The White House conversations from February to April 1971 provide a sense of the relationship that Nixon and Kissinger perceived between SALT and various critical foreign policy issues. The most obvious diplomatic linkage was with the ongoing Berlin four-power talks, which were designed to clarify the status of Berlin and the rights and responsibilities of the nations that assumed control of the city after World War II (the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France). Kissinger’s working assumption was that Moscow’s anxiety to reach an agreement over Berlin provided the Nixon administration with leverage over the Kremlin in arms control. Kissinger was prepared to hold up the Berlin talks even though U.S. stalling tactics might bring down the government of West German chancellor Willy Brandt—or at the very least make Brandt’s domestic political situation more difficult (Conversation 489-017, PRDE Excerpt A).

Nixon and Kissinger also considered the linkage between SALT and a possible autumn U.S.–Soviet summit. “If we get SALT, we’ll get the summit,” Nixon told Kissinger. Kissinger replied that he did not see why the Soviets would want to have the summit without resolving the substantive negotiations because “if they don't give on SALT we will just stonewall on the rest of the [superpower] agenda” (Conversation 249-016, PRDE Excerpt A).

Kissinger and Nixon also believed that the nascent opening to China gave them maneuvering room with the Soviets, which might well facilitate a SALT agreement. Kissinger, for his part, noted that “we can whipsaw the two of them if we play it boldly and don’t get sentimental about it.” The United States had the option of moving toward an outright alliance with the Chinese to offset Soviet intransigence over SALT and other critical issues, though Kissinger believed that the threat of doing so would be sufficient to bring the Soviets back to serious diplomacy (Conversation 483-013, PRDE Excerpt A). On the one hand, the United States must not overplay this threat Washington needed to give the Soviets a way out and not have SALT fail because of Moscow’s displeasure with the warming of Sino–American relations (Conversation 479-001). On the other hand, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the need to inform the Chinese about a U.S.–Soviet announcement of progress in SALT and to offer reassurance that arms control was not being directed at Beijing (Conversation 498-002).

Nixon also believed that a SALT agreement might indirectly provide incentives for the North Vietnamese to negotiate seriously: “The only possibility of something happening here is tied to their concern about the Chinese and Russians, for example, if something develops in a breakthrough in SALT, which is possible” (Conversation 495-026). Kissinger remarked that the SALT breakthrough announcement was bound to jolt the North Vietnamese: “[N]o matter what the Russians tell them, they can’t be sure what side deals are being made” (Conversation 498-002).

SALT and American Politics

The President was insistent that his negotiating leverage with the Soviets depended fundamentally on the prospect that the United States would maintain its planned defense programs, especially SAFEGUARD, despite evident congressional opposition. Nixon attempted to buy time for the back channel to play out by meeting in the Oval Office with key legislators of both parties, including Senators Mike Mansfield [D–Montana] and John McClellan [D–Arkansas]. Nixon insisted to them that he was serious about arms control and that progress in SALT was at least modestly encouraging. He indicated that the next few months would be critical and that Congress should not undercut his position in SALT by opposing SAFEGUARD or failing to support him on military matters (Conversation 245-006, PRDE Excerpt A see also Conversation 482-022 ). The President was adamant that the White House must quash stories that he or others in the administration had doubts about the viability of the ABM program.

Nixon and Kissinger considered what might happen if back-channel efforts to reach a basic SALT framework failed, as seemed possible between late February and late April 1971. Kissinger argued that if the Soviets did not make a major move in the direction of the American position, the United States would “have to go hard on them,” because the Soviet offensive and defensive deployments were “scary.” He expressed concern that Moscow’s nuclear buildup, especially its heavy ICBM forces, pointed toward a first-strike capability, which the United States could not counter in a timely fashion because of the potential for a Soviet breakout (Conversation 481-007, PRDE Excerpt A). In Kissinger’s opinion, this enhanced capability would provide Moscow with enormous psychological leverage, especially during the President’s second term. The danger would be compounded by the determination of the President’s domestic critics to attack the U.S. military-industrial complex and undermine American strategic strength—a familiar theme in the White House conversations (Conversation 482-010, PRDE Excerpt A). At the same time, Nixon argued that the country itself would probably turn hard-right in the event that the Soviets appeared to be gaining strategic superiority and that it would be necessary politically, as well as strategically, to respond with an American counter-buildup.

For the Nixon White House, the problem of managing senior American officials and the interagency SALT policy process was just as important, or perhaps more so, than the substance of arms control. Kissinger and Nixon were repeatedly frustrated by leaks and bureaucratic intransigence, which they believed were designed to undermine the White House’s negotiating strategy. In their opinion, if the White House did not preempt the advocates of compromise in SALT, the result would be an agreement that fundamentally jeopardized U.S. security. Nixon was particularly scathing in his assessment of the abilities and trustworthiness of the chief U.S. SALT negotiator, Gerard C. Smith (Conversation 460-025, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon and Kissinger were determined to exclude the regular national security bureaucracy, including the secretaries of state and defense, as well as Smith, from the substance of the negotiations with Dobrynin—and even from knowledge that the back channel existed.

The Oval Office conversations also reveal the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger to manipulate the U.S. delegation to the formal SALT negotiations, which resumed in Vienna on 15 March, while the back-channel discussions continued. On several occasions, Nixon and Kissinger expressed dismay and anger when they believed that the Soviets had attempted to “game” that uncomfortable situation by, for example, making a formal proposal in Vienna of something that Kissinger had already rejected in the back channel (Conversation 496-009, PRDE Excerpt A).

The President also considered how to deal with the reaction of senior officials, particularly Secretary of State Rogers, once a basic understanding with the Soviets had been reached through the back channel. How would Nixon explain to them that such a major development had taken place without their knowledge? The White House spent much time crafting an acceptable cover story to account for the breakthrough in SALT. Nixon feared that these officials would, at a minimum, embarrass the White House or even resign in protest at their exclusion from the back-channel discussions. Nixon went so far as to engage Rogers in a for-the-record meeting on 26 February, during which the President made a vague reference to “writing a letter or something” (Conversation 460-025, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon would later refer back to this conversation to insist to Rogers that the Secretary of State indeed had been consulted in advance (Conversation 501-014).

White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman played a significant role in advising Nixon on how to deal with the difficulties within the administration over SALT, especially given the rivalry between Rogers and Kissinger. At one point, Nixon told Haldeman that he suspected that Kissinger’s position on SALT was motivated substantially by his need to better Rogers (Conversation 457-004).

Nixon was also fixated on the need to ensure that he, rather than the Department of State or the SALT delegation, personally received credit for a SALT agreement. He feared that Rogers and Smith, aided and abetted by the liberal media and the Soviets, would rob him of the strategic and political advantages of being seen as the driving force behind an arms agreement (Conversation 451-004). Nixon was anxious to maximize the political advantages of portraying himself as a statesman committed to peace, and to disarm his critics, such as probable presidential candidate Edmund S. Muskie [D–Maine], who had claimed that the SALT negotiations were going nowhere. Nixon often referred to the political capital that President John F. Kennedy had obtained through the 1963 nuclear test ban agreement with the Soviets, even though he and Kissinger disparaged its strategic importance (Conversation 468-005, PRDE Excerpt A see also Conversation 494-004).

While they waited for the Soviets to respond, Nixon and Kissinger at times expressed the view that SALT was too esoteric to gain much political traction, and questioned the intrinsic worth of arms control. But as Nixon remarked, “in terms of our public relations, we can use something like this at this time. I wouldn't do anything wrong for public relations reasons, but I don't want to horse around . . .” (Conversation 487-021, PRDE Excerpt A). In a conversation with Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig Jr. about how to use foreign policy successes to win key congressional votes, Nixon suggested that progress towards a Vietnam settlement, a U.S.–Soviet summit, and the opening to China might offer greater political value than a SALT agreement (Conversation 493-010, PRDE Excerpt A). But Nixon later told Haldeman that he had deliberately downgraded the importance of SALT in his discussion with Haig, and admitted that “the SALT thing is enormously important” (Conversation 493-015). “Kissinger is totally wrong, and Haig is half-wrong. . . . SALT will have a hell of an effect on this town” (Conversation 494-004).

Nixon’s China Sell-Out

Nixon’s China opening had little regards for American and allied troops in Vietnam.

As Winston Lord relates in his oral history given to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, former President Richard Nixon had three key goals in changing American policy toward the People’s Republic of China.

First, says Lord, opening China would give the United States “more flexibility on the world scene.” This would allow Washington to deal separately with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. By peeling China away, the Communist Bloc would indeed be “no longer a bloc.”

Second, “we would catch Russia’s attention and get more leverage on them.” This, states Lord, worked “dramatically” well after Kissinger secretly went to China in July 1971.

And third, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, “wanted to get help in resolving the Vietnam War.” But Lord states that the “maximum” that the United States was looking for was “to slow down the provision of aid to North Vietnam somewhat.”

“More realistically,” Lord continues, “we sought to persuade Russia and China to encourage Hanoi to make a deal with the United States and give Hanoi a sense of isolation because their two, big patrons were dealing with us.”

In other words, Nixon’s opening to China was less about confronting major suppliers of aid to arms to North Vietnam than it was about enhancing diplomatic and geopolitical positioning and leverage for the United States around the world.

In the seven years just prior to Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, 56,907 young American men had been killed in Vietnam. This figure does not take into account the dead and wounded from the many nations, such as South Korea and Australia, who were allied with the United States in the Vietnam conflict. Nor does it begin to address the hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout Southeast Asia, on both sides of the war, who lost either their lives, or if they were lucky, only their livelihoods, as “collateral” damage.

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China had materially contributed to the deaths of the young soldiers for whom Nixon was not just president, but commander-in-chief. China’s support for North Vietnam made China culpable for many of the lives lost in Vietnam on the U.S. and allied side.

And many Chinese were, of course, proud of it. I remember well a 700-kilometer road trip in 1992 from Kunming to Lincang in Yunnan Province. This wild drive partly paralleled the Lancang River, better known outside of China as the Mekong. The driver had been requisitioned by local telecoms authorities in Lincang to transport us into the beautiful but drug-ridden Chinese portion of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. As we came out of the mountains into the valley through which the Lancang flows south into Laos, the driver announced, “This is where I used to carry guns for Vietnam. We drove them along this road and floated them along that river. Those guns killed your American boys.”

From arms, to training, to the repair of roads and bridges, China provided assistance to Ho Chi Minh that ultimately helped to decide the war in his favor.

Yet in his outreach to China, Vietnam was less on Nixon’s mind than realigning the world’s balance of power. This was clear even before Nixon assumed the presidency. Nixon wrote in Foreign Affairs in October 1967:

We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

Fifteen months later, and only two days into his presidency, Nixon wrote, “Chinese Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 800,000,000 living in angry isolation. We want contact … [want] China—cooperative member of international community and member of Pacific community.”

Nothing here about ending the Vietnam War. In that year alone, 1969, 11,780 Americans would die in Vietnam, even while Nixon was devising a strategy to help China, who was aiding and abetting the American enemy, become a “cooperative member” of the international community.

Secret, back-door negotiations to meet the Chinese marched forward. Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke by phone on April 17, 1971. In a long conversation discussing who should be sent first to meet with the Chinese, any idea of including Vietnam as a discussion point in that meeting is either rejected or ignored by Nixon.

Nixon says, referring to David Bruce, lead negotiator in the Paris talks on Vietnam, as a potential envoy to China, “the Bruce thing… seems to me may pose a difficult problem because of him being directly involved in the Vietnam negotiations.”

Later in the conversation, Henry Kissinger approaches the subject of Vietnam again. “Mr. President, I have not said this before, but I think if we get this thing working, we will end Vietnam this year.”

Nixon continues as if he hadn’t heard the comment. “Another thing, of course, our little problem of time.”

This is not the say Vietnam was not a consideration at all. In 1999, James Mann, in his book, About Face, quoted notes that Nixon made for himself in Beijing in February 1972, as he was getting ready to meet with Zhou Enlai. “Taiwan = Vietnam = tradeoff,” Nixon wrote, and “Won’t support Taiwan independence.” This was meant to indicate that Nixon was prepared to sacrifice Taiwan for help with ending the war in Vietnam, something not stated in the Shanghai Communique.

In fact Kissinger had already had this discussion with Zhou Enlai during his secret meeting in July 1971. Winston Lord’s July 29, 1971 record of the Kissinger-Zhou meeting was released on April 5, 2001, along with tens of thousands of pages of other Nixon papers. Lord’s memo includes the assessment of Zhou Enlai, “On Indochina [I.e. Vietnam], his language was relatively restrained, but he gave firm support to his friends [I.e. the North Vietnamese] and a hands-off attitude, even while recognizing the link you were establishing between this issue and Taiwan [emphasis added].”

Apparently China’s unwillingness to give up Vietnam did not deter Nixon or Kissinger. By February 1972, the process and the preparations were complete, and Nixon made his China visit. The Shanghai Communique said nothing about Vietnam.

Instead, Nixon and Kissinger gave China nearly everything that they could have asked for. The most important of these concessions was the “one China” policy, in which the United States acknowledged “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”

Nixon’s decision to bring China out of isolation, and to magnanimously give China a door to the outside world, came with costs. The most obvious cost was the position of Taiwan in the world. But another, less often-discussed, cost was the lives and welfare of U.S. and allied soldiers in Vietnam. China was not forced to publicly renounce their role in supplying arms and assistance to North Vietnam, while the United States unilaterally gave up Taiwan. Mao Zedong got his one China policy, his special relationship with the United States, and a continued free hand if he wanted it in his relationship with North Vietnam.

The one China policy has been the bedrock of the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China for 46 years now. At the time of its declaration, it can be argued, the policy’s primary proponent, the president of the United States, should have negotiated primarily for the welfare and well-being of his troops, who were in harm’s way. Instead, the result of Nixon’s negotiations were one-sided deals that benefited men who had helped to kill over 50,000 of his nation’s youth, thousands under his command at the time.

How Mao Used Ping Pong to Woo Nixon

How Mao and Zhou Enlai used table tennis to woo Nixon.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which begin on Feb. 7, are already raising the specter of awkward international confrontations several countries, including the United States, have condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on gays and restrictions on political protest ahead of the games. But sports have historically also brought less-than-friendly nations together—famously, China and the United States, whose players’ surprise meeting at the 1971 ping pong World Championships helped to open the door for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic the next year.

How did that Sino-American rapprochement come to be? The long-accepted story is that the catalyst was a spontaneous burst of friendship between a hippie American table tennis player and a Chinese world champion. The narrative makes sense: Ping pong is a recreational game for suburban garages and frat houses, so how could it be anything other than benign? But that telling is a misreading of a pivotal event whose origins were more calculated than have been acknowledged—set in motion, it seems, by the Chinese government itself.

By 1971, ping pong, like the Olympics, already had a political history. The game had been codified, and the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was founded in 1926, by the Honorable Ivor Montagu. The youngest son of the Baron Swaythling, one of England’s wealthiest men, Montagu was producing early Alfred Hitchcock films when he embarked on a parallel career as a Soviet propagandist and spy. The day he turned 21, the Cambridge student had left for Moscow, where his family’s extraordinary connections to prime ministers, royalty, generals and admirals were quickly noted.

Eager to prove himself to the Kremlin, Montagu would return to England and spend decades quietly working for the Soviets. A true communist believes that everything from family to food, film to sport, is political. By the 1950s, Montagu had already proved as much. He had persuaded Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and his deputy, Premier Zhou Enlai, to make ping pong the national game of China, inviting them into the ITTF and assuring their good treatment there. Not only did Montagu tap the Chinese to host their first World Championships, in 1961, but the surrounding publicity helped to cover up the real story: Somewhere between 17 and 44 million people had recently starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s collectivization and industrialization program. No matter: China had built the world’s greatest table tennis stadium, and it hosted 33 countries and won most of the gold medals. Britain’s Foreign Office dismissed the championships as a “not entirely negligible fillip to the regime,” but that was missing the point. Propaganda isn’t always about promoting events—it can also be about obscuring them.

Come 1971, China would use ping pong politically yet again, but this time the challenge was more subtle than how to hide a famine Mao and Zhou Enlai wanted no less than to spin the world on its head. The United States was the old enemy, and the Russians for years had been China’s fellow communists. But the Chinese relationship with Moscow had recently become strained to the point of war. Mao tired of seeing Russia and America divide up the world, and he wanted to forge a separate path for China. There was fighting along the Sino-Soviet border, which Mao followed by conducting two nuclear tests in China that were designed to carry fall-out over Soviet positions. Soviet diplomats were even feeling out their counterparts in Washington to see how the United States might react to a nuclear strike on Beijing.

Mao knew he had to produce a signal move to reach a détente with America and in turn deter the Soviet threat. Nixon was a willing partner, eager for Chinese help in negotiating with Hanoi over the war in Vietnam. He could also see the advantages of cooperating with the Chinese in order to worry the Soviets into warmer behavior. But both Mao and Nixon had similar concerns. Mao knew the idea of befriending the Americans could get him torn down by the radical left. Nixon was worried about his own right wing. Cozying up to the hated Red Chinese? What would Americans think?

In 1970, Chinese and American leaders began to move unsigned messages back and forth. But Nixon soon began to escalate the war in Vietnam, and by the beginning of 1971 the Chinese seemed to have retreated into silence.

The real problem still remained: It didn’t matter what the politicians wished to do. Without the support of their respective populations, Nixon and Mao’s imagined initiative was doomed. But how could mutual antagonism, held so deeply for more than 20 years, be diffused in a matter of days? Mao and Zhou Enlai had a very specific idea: ping pong.

The World Table Tennis Championships were due to return to Asia, to the Japanese city of Nagoya, in April 1971. Only 25 years earlier, during World War II, Nagoya had been a central target for U.S. bombing raids, an industrial hub that was home to Japan Aircraft and Mitsubishi Generator. Now an American ally would be hosting Team USA—and potentially the Chinese too.

Japan’s interest in China’s attendance at Nagoya can be traced to a world champion table tennis player, Tokyo native Ichiro Ogimura, who seized on an opportunity to lure the renowned Chinese team back to the international circuit. In 1970, after reading of the rising tensions between China and the Soviet Union, Ogimura, better known as Ogi, immediately fired off a telegram to Zhou Enlai. Over the previous decade, Zhou, an avid table tennis fan, had admired and then befriended the Japanese player. Ogi recommended that China’s “best opportunity lies in opening the door to the international community through the sport of table tennis.” He had received no answer from the premier.

It wasn’t surprising. China had essentially closed its borders after the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Its national squad, by then the winner of three straight World Championships, had run afoul of the ever more radical Chinese government. Three of the team’s best coaches and players, including the country’s first world champion, had either committed suicide after a series of interrogations or been beaten to death. For almost five years, the outside world had no idea which of the players were dead and which were alive. They had not been allowed to leave the country.

To his surprise, in October 1970 Ogimura was invited to take part in a small cultural exchange program to celebrate a Chinese national holiday. Desperate to talk to the premier, Ogi was granted little more than a handshake at the event, but at 1 a.m. the following morning, he was called to visit Zhou at his office in the Great Hall of the People, where Ogi pleaded his case for China to send a team to Nagoya. Zhou was wary. “Can you imagine what kinds of trouble might occur?” he asked. “If something were to happen after you have personally involved the premier of a country, how will you take responsibility?” For the time, the case seemed closed.

By the end of the year, however, Ogi was back in China, on a trade mission to Guangzhou, under the guise of Ogimura Trading, his new company that exported ashtrays and tablecloths. He was accompanied by Toshiaki Furukawa, his employee and table tennis acolyte. Arriving at their hotel, Furukawa was impressed to see that it had a table tennis table in the lobby. Two Chinese porters stood on either side wearing white dress shirts. “You might as well have a knockabout with them,” Ogi said as he checked in. The first porter could barely return a lob. The second started slowly, then raised the pace—until, soon enough, Furukawa was being spun around the lobby. The porter put down his paddle, then slowly unbuttoned his shirt. Underneath was the bright red uniform of China’s national table tennis team. The player carried with him an invitation for Ogimura Trading to play a friendly game in Beijing days later. Ogi jumped at the opportunity, and the match, watched by 15,000 spectators, was the first the Chinese team had played on the international stage in years.

The Chinese seemed to be warming to Ogi’s plan, but attending the World Championships still presented problems for Zhou. The United States would be attending, and while America’s political relations with Japan were strong, China still had no official relationship with either country.

Zhou’s next move was to reach out to Koji Goto, the 64-year-old president of Japan’s table tennis association who was nicknamed “shogun” because he resembled one of those proud samurais so frequently disemboweled in Akira Kurosawa’s films. Not even a year earlier, the Chinese press had labeled Goto a “reactionary” for having committed the cardinal sin of inviting Taiwan—which Mao adamantly believed was part of China, not its own nation—to play in a regional tournament. Yet unexpectedly, Goto received an invitation to visit Zhou in January 1971.

On his way to meet the premier, Goto was thinking purely of Sino-Japanese relations. The idea of a U.S.-China rapprochement would have seemed outlandish to any Japanese, and Goto had no reason to do the United States any favors. In 1944, American bombs had set fire to the school his family ran in Nagoya. Another bomb hit the hospital where his youngest son was being treated for pneumonia. After receiving death threats in response to his decision to go to China, Goto opted for a disguise on his flight to Beijing: a hunting cap, glasses and a mask (which must have made him only more conspicuous).

In Beijing, the reason for his invitation finally became clear. After years of silence, Zhou was contemplating sending the Chinese team to compete in Nagoya. But Goto would have to pay a heavy fee for the privilege of hosting China’s coming-out party: abandoning support of Taiwan, even within the regional body of the Asian Table Tennis Union. Implicit in this was Goto’s rejection of the “Two Chinas” solution, which would have allowed both Taiwan and China to be represented. Zhou was asking a body that was supposed to be nonpolitical to take a highly political stand. Goto conceded, and on Feb. 1, 1971, he finally announced that China would be participating in the World Championships. He was inundated with calls from TV stations trying to negotiate the rights to air the championships, and after receiving more death threats, he was given round-the-clock protection from the Japanese government—highly unusual for a citizen.

Zhou, meanwhile, was left to convince his own table tennis squad to go to Nagoya. He called a meeting with the team on March 11 and asked for their opinion as to whether they wished to compete in Japan. What were they supposed to say? For five years their situation had gradually deteriorated. In 1966, they had been the most famous men and women in China, winners of numerous gold medals, invited to go on holiday with the leaders of China. Yet during the Cultural Revolution, almost all had suffered. There had been interrogations, beatings, accusations, suicides, even a reputed murder. The survivors had been exiled from Beijing, sent to the countryside of Shanxi to pick wheat, after being accused en masse of “trophyism”—chasing short-term glory abroad. It was no coincidence that the three squad members who died had all been born in Hong Kong nothing was more terrifying in the Cultural Revolution than associations with anything foreign. Now, it seemed a ridiculous notion that they would soon be in Japan playing in a televised World Championships. And what would happen if the Chinese were drawn to play the Americans? Although a handful of the Chinese players thought they should attend, the majority carried the day and voted to remain in China, indoctrinated for years to believe there was nothing to learn from foreign countries.

But it really didn’t matter what they thought—the final word came directly from Mao. Agreeing with Zhou that the team should leave for Nagoya, Mao wrote the players a note conveying his good-luck wishes—and telling them “to prepare for death.” Japan was a rightist country—there was a healthy chance of a bombing or an assassination. Mao added to Zhou, “We should be prepared to lose a few people of course, it will be better if we don’t.”

While the Chinese world champions were being swept up into the Cultural Revolution, across the globe Glenn Cowan was still a kid, the oldest son of a middle-class Jewish family from New Rochelle, N.Y. Cowan was one of those boys who seemed to be able to pick up any sport, but he was smitten with table tennis for the simple reason that he won the first tournament he had ever entered, within a week of taking up the game. Then he won the next 17 in a row.

Cowan’s father, who worked in public relations in Manhattan, put a table above the family’s garage, a lopsided affair on an uneven floor. On the weekends, he would occasionally take his son into the city to match up against older players at a seedy club in the basement of the Riverside Plaza Hotel on West 73rd St. At age 14, Cowan traveled with his father across the country to compete in a tournament in Los Angeles. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cowan, with his big smile and Leave It to Beaver crew cut, explained that table tennis just wasn’t that hard for him. “The most amazing thing,” the newspaper said, “is that he seldom practices.” The Chinese coaches would have been horrified. But why should Cowan be serious about the sport? There was no money in the American game. Even the 14-year-old Cowan seemed to realize this, telling the L.A. Times he planned to study finance or law after high school.

Father and son had enjoyed their trip to Los Angeles so much that they persuaded Glenn’s mother and younger brother, Keith, to move there in 1966. But the next year, everything changed for Cowan when his doting father, his main practice partner and nurturer of his fledgling career, died abruptly of lung cancer. In the following years, Cowan’s hair grew down past his shoulders, and his attitude changed. It was a time when culture and counterculture overlapped. For Cowan, that meant an odd mixture of hypercompetitiveness and California-style relaxation—namely, table tennis and smoking pot. Ping pong was a small-enough sport that Cowan could often just show up at his local spot in Hollywood, hustle a few dollars in winnings and travel to win a regional tournament on the weekend. By the turn of the decade, his mother estimated that her teenager had won “over a hundred trophies.”

In early 1971, the best American players in the country gathered at the Convention Center in Atlanta, Ga., for the U.S. Nationals—which underscored all that was wrong with American table tennis. First came the humiliation of having dozens of competitors show up, only to find that they had been displaced from the main auditorium by El Mongol, a not-so-famous wrestler. The floors the competitors ended playing on were waxed so well they were sliding into cardboard advertisements surrounding the courts. And with the play divided between two different floors separated by a maze of passageways, some players were scratched from the roster for not finding their tables in time. Attendance was pitiful—just 400 people came out to watch—and there wasn’t a breath of media coverage. In the hype of American sport, table tennis had been forgotten.

The U.S. team that emerged from Atlanta would bump, trip and beg its way to Nagoya. The United States Table Tennis Association (USTTA) could only afford to send three men from the organization other players paid their own way, scraping together money through donations and bank loans. None of the Americans expected to win a World Championship. Some members of the USTTA had even wondered if it was worth sending such a poor team. Tim Boggan, the USTTA’s vice president who traveled with the squad to Nagoya, violently opposed those doubters. At 40, he was America’s ultimate table tennis obsessive, a gray-bearded Pepys of ping pong who believed that if the unpaid bureaucrats in the American game would just step out of the way, the sport would be able to shine by itself . “How the fuck were we going to get good if we stayed playing in the basement?” he said.

In Japan, almost all teams were housed in the Nagoya Miyako Hotel, a bleak box that looked like an inhospitable cheese grater. In the lobby a Japanese torch singer warbled American love songs from World War II. Pajamas and slippers were provided for the players. Buses from the hotel to the Aichi Gymnasium, home of the 31st World Championships, ran every 30 minutes.

On the first night of play, Sunday, March 28, the 58 teams paraded through the arena for the opening ceremony. The Chinese entered in much the same manner as their army stomped through Tiananmen Square every October to celebrate the foundation of the People’s Republic of China—arms swinging vigorously back and forth, perfectly synchronized in their red tracksuits. Every country had outfitted their players in uniforms for the event except for the beleaguered American team, which made its lap of honor in an assortment of colors and styles.

The matches proceeded just as Team USA had feared, starting with the sad sight of the empty-handed American captain, Jack Howard, stepping forward to greet his counterpart from Hong Kong the USTTA hadn’t provided him with the traditional pennant to swap. The Americans lost 5–1 to Hong Kong and 5–0 to South Korea. Cowan, losing to a better player, beseeched Howard for advice: “You got to tell me what to do out there. You got to tell me what to do!” But Howard wasn’t a coach, and he had no cure for the desperate state of American table tennis. Thanks to Ivor Montagu, ping pong was now a game in which state-sponsored professionals dominated amateurs. Only a handful of countries that competed at the top, while the other 53 nations lagged far behind.

The Chinese team, meanwhile, had a different set of concerns. Zhou Enlai picked a decorated air force veteran to organize the details of the team’s flight—on two separate planes, for maximum safety. Before their departure, the premier gathered the team in Beijing one last time. “Go,” he told his ambassadors. “Rejoin the international family.”

When the first plane landed, to his relief one of the team’s coaches, Liang Youneng, saw among a large crowd on the tarmac a handful of people holding the Little Red Book aloft. “Long Live Mao!” they shouted. Across the runway, Liang saw a larger group—Japanese rightists who were swarming toward them, furiously bellowing “Down with Mao!” The police tried to hurry the ping pong players toward safety. “I couldn’t even feel my feet on the ground,” Liang remembers. “I was pushed by the crowd to the car.” Perhaps Mao’s warning wasn’t an exaggeration. Ping pong players might really be killed on the streets of Nagoya.

Everywhere the Chinese went, they were accompanied by a convoy of police officers on motorbikes. While most of the teams would be sharing a hotel and transport, the Chinese had their own buses and had made their own hotel arrangements. The assigned Japanese security wore tiny pins so that the Chinese players could identify them in an emergency. At night, as the players tried to sleep, they could hear the chants of Japanese demonstrators drift up to their windows. “Drive! Drive! Drive! Drive away the Chinese!” The team watched the Chinese national flag burning on the street beneath their hotel. They watched portraits of Mao spark, light and burst into flames. To ensure the players’ safety, a handful of Japanese Communists slept in the corridor outside the Chinese team’s rooms “with only some newspapers underneath and overcoats for covering.”

It was understood that the Chinese team wasn’t necessarily there to win the tournament. There were clear political reasons too—they were required to report to Beijing three times a day about what they saw and with whom they interacted. They were instructed to analyze draws for the possible political implications of facing certain opponents, and Beijing might command them to purposely lose a match for diplomacy’s sake this was the case when the Chinese faced North Korea, whose dictatorial leader, Kim Il-sung, Zhou wanted to show a gesture of friendship. As ever, Chinese government officials knew what was happening at the tournament at nearly every moment . The players were simply pawns to be moved where Beijing needed.

On the courts, the Chinese were doing better than they had hoped heading toward the inevitable clash with Japan. They practiced feverishly on the days when they didn’t have matches and occasionally mixed with the North Koreans and players from other friendly countries. They could spot an American at a distance they were like small clouds of radioactivity that were best avoided. With the Cultural Revolution in the back of their minds, both players and officials knew that direct contact with Americans could still be interpreted as counterrevolutionary behavior.

But there was only so much the Chinese could do. One day, one of China’s youngest players was finishing up a practice session when an odd apparition appeared before him. Glenn Cowan was gesturing for the young man to join him. The Chinese man was horrified by the long-haired, head-banded teenager—an American. Was the the invitation an insult, an American attempt to hoodwink him because he was so young? The Chinese player retreated from the court to ask a Chinese official what he should do. What if Cowan had been told to approach the Chinese by an American official? Go back, was the advice from the Chinese delegation, play for a short time and then excuse yourself. Once taught to revile foreigners, the players were now instructed to engage with them.

The team championship came down to the expected matchup between the Japanese and the Chinese, who edged the competition. The singles tournament, however, took a surprise turn when China’s Zhuang Zedong, then their three-time world champion, announced in a press conference that he was withdrawing. Before he could meet a higher-ranking European player, he would have to defeat a young Cambodian. Zhuang sat in front of dozens of microphones and patiently explained that he refused to compete against the squads from Cambodia and Vietnam, who represented governments that were propped up by the West and that the Cambodian and Vietnamese people didn’t approve of. It was pure strategy, a plan devised a month before by Zhou Enlai to throw a bone to the radicals back in Beijing. Zhou had walked sport across a tightrope to satisfy both sides of the Chinese political spectrum. The hard-line nationalists of the Cultural Revolution could take comfort in Zhuang’s show of solidarity with American adversaries. But, as it would soon become clear, by keeping the team in the group competition, Zhou and his pragmatists had another diplomatic goal in mind.

The climactic diplomatic moment of the tournament came in an incident that on its surface appeared to take place purely by chance.

On Monday, April 5, when Glenn Cowan walked out of the practice hall after a game with a young Englishman, there was a bus waiting outside. Cowan presumed it was one of the shuttles running between the practice hall and the stadium, but it seemed to be full. According to the Chinese, Cowan stumbled up the steps, the bus doors shut and the driver drove off. Only then did Cowan realize that he was the lone American on a bus full of Communist Chinese.

Cowan’s version of the incident is significantly different. “I was invited actually to board the Chinese bus with the team, which shocked me, of course,” he later said. Both parties agree that a few minutes of silence followed, other than the mechanical roar of a large bus changing gears. Cowan was in a country where he couldn’t even read a street sign, with players representing a supposedly hostile nation. These were the dreaded Red Chinese.

Ever since he had approached the young Chinese player for a knockabout, Cowan had been convinced that the Chinese were watching him. He looked up at one point and spotted Zhuang Zedong staring at him from the crowd. “It was really weird,” he later told Tim Boggan. In the bus, Cowan decided to defuse the awkwardness and started talking to the Chinese group through their English-speaking interpreter. “I know all this,” he began, “my hat, my hair, my clothes look funny to you. But there are many, many people who look like me and who think like me. We, too, have known oppression in our country, and we are fighting against it. But just wait. Soon we will be in control because the people on top are getting more and more out of touch.”

The translator explained in Chinese. Was Cowan actually talking about Mao’s continuous revolution coming to America? Who was Cowan speaking on behalf of? Cowan told his roommate later that he was trying “to think like a revolutionary.” The Chinese players exchanged sideways glances. Who would speak to an American? The orders had been strict back in Beijing: Americans could be greeted politely, but they were the only country at the World Championships with whom the Chinese players shouldn’t shake hands. What to do now? Which of them had waved him onto the bus? Why had they done it if they didn’t even want to talk to him?

From the back of the bus, Zhuang, China’s greatest-ever player, stood up and walked forward. His teammates tugged at his sleeves. One whispered, “What are you going to do?” Another said quietly, “Don’t even talk to him.” Zhuang walked all the way to the front, where Cowan was sitting. In Zhuang’s right hand, he carried a gift. Not just a Mao pin, a badge with the Chairman’s profile, but a silkscreen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains. He offered Cowan his hand to shake and handed him the gift. Cowan beamed in surprise. “Even now,” Zhuang said 35 years later, “I can’t forget the naive smile on his face.”

“Do you know who’s giving you this gift?” asked the interpreter. “Sure,” said Cowan. “It’s Zhuang Zedong.” He looked at the champion and smiled again. “I hope you do well this week.”

There are two ways to interpret Zhuang’s behavior. The first is to take every interview he’s ever given at face value. All his actions that day, he claims, were influenced by his personal commitment to Confucianism—a general belief in openness and reconciliation. By Zhuang’s account, he was willing to go against everything that had been drilled into the team over the last five years, including the knowledge that “during the Cultural Revolution a lot of people got arrested from contacting foreigners and everyone was afraid.”

Or were Zhuang’s actions premeditated? This was the man who had seen three of his oldest colleagues and mentors driven to death as counterrevolutionaries because of their ties to foreigners. He had been beaten and tortured and had his head shaved. Under extraordinary pressure, he had signed a statement denouncing high-ranking generals and team officials. The accusations against them were weak none of the Chinese deemed guilty during the Cultural Revolution had ever instigated contact with a citizen of a hostile nation. In all likelihood, Zhuang felt compelled to do as he was directed by Beijing he had already shown that he was in Nagoya to represent the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party by withdrawing from the men’s singles competition on direct government instructions. As the most senior player, he was, in his own words, the first to be asked to “represent our team.” Even if the actual moment on the bus was spontaneous, the context could very well have been premeditated in the extreme. Cowan was more like a mark in a con game than an accidental diplomat.

Cowan had most likely been selected because he had already tried to reach out to the Chinese in the practice hall, making them almost certain that he would behave in a friendly way. The Chinese bus had waited for him even though the Chinese had their own bus, hotel and training facility. The fact that it picked up Cowan and then departed without waiting for other players suggests it was Cowan they were waiting for. And how could Zhuang explain the fact that he was carrying a gift when even the most senior players were allowed to carry only tiny souvenirs, like Mao pins, to exchange?

Despite always maintaining that the moment was spontaneous, Zhuang once admitted, “Before I left China, I went to a warehouse to get a large silkscreen portrait, for an American. I thought it had to be a large one.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry “kept a warehouse, very carefully graded,” filled with gifts for foreign dignitaries. In other words, it was always decided in advance exactly what level of gift a diplomat would receive.

When Zhuang and Cowan stepped down from the bus at the Aichi stadium, a group of photographers was waiting. Photographs of the two grinning players were printed on the front pages of every Japanese newspaper the following morning, and immediately picked up by the Associated Press. They also ran in one of the world’s most important newspapers with a tiny circulation, specially edited for the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. When he reached page 78, Mao peered closely at the picture of the two beaming athletes. The Californian and the former world champion had the chairman’s full attention. “Zhuang Zedong,” Mao reportedly mused. “He’s not just a good table tennis player. He’s a good diplomat as well.” The chairman immediately gave instructions that the Chinese team increase its calls to Beijing from three to five times a day.

Now that the Chinese and American players had reached out to each other, the officials might be able to do the same. For now, though, there was still silence. The Chinese suspected that the U.S. team was being run by Washington in the way that theirs was commandeered from Beijing. There had even been a rumor that the CIA had stocked its Langley, Va., headquarters with ping pong equipment in anticipation of the Chinese team’s trip to Nagoya, and that an American intelligence agent might infiltrate the tournament. It would take several more months and tricky backchannel negotiations, particularly over Taiwan, before Nixon was ready to make his historic 1972 trip to China.

For his part, Cowan, the shaggy-haired son of a PR man, knew an opportunity in Nagoya when he saw it. He didn’t have any more games to play in the tournament, having crashed out of the first rounds of both the singles and the consolation tournaments. Instead, while still in Japan, he went shopping for a return present for Zhuang. He ended up buying two T-shirts, one for him and one for Zhuang. They were white and long-sleeved, with a peace symbol in the corner of a painted American flag. Underneath, in large letters, was the Beatles’ lyric that Paul McCartney had written two years earlier at the height of his acrimony with John Lennon: “Let it be.” All Cowan had to do was confirm from the schedule that the Chinese were due to play the following morning at 8:30 and then go to wait for Zhuang.

The second photo op within 24 hours was even better attended than the first. When Zhuang arrived, Cowan, who had already been walking around the practice hall showing off the silkscreen, was waiting. Now he stepped forward in front of the photographers. “He gave me a big hug,” remembered Zhuang, and the cameras blazed.

The press turned the moment into a spontaneous gesture of two innocents thirsting after world peace. But the political implications were far grander. For Zhou Enlai, the meeting was the seamless projection of state policy for Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, it would be perfectly acceptable too, since it furthered their own designs to engage with China. Kissinger would later suspect the moment of friendship might have been manufactured in Beijing. In 1979, he wrote that “one of the most remarkable gifts of the Chinese is to make the meticulously planned appear spontaneous.”

What’s clear is that the moment was the justification of Ivor Montagu’s belief in ping pong as a form of diplomacy. The correct deployment of propaganda in sports provides the illusion of a space that seems neutral. You get the advantage of being seen as openhanded at a moment of thorough calculation. Ping pong diplomacy was a tribute to Zhou Enlai’s exacting preparation. Table tennis had been political in China since its official adoption in 1953 and had remained malleable enough to be the correct tool at the correct time—but only if everything went according to plan.

Feb. 17, 1972 | Nixon Departs for Diplomatic Trip to China

White House Photo Office President Nixon shook hands with Chairman Mao during their historic meeting on Feb. 21, 1972.
Historic Headlines

Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.

On Feb. 17, 1972, President Richard Nixon departed on his historic trip to China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries.

The New York Times said that as many as 8,000 congressmen, government officials, newsmen and schoolchildren gathered at the White House lawn to bid Nixon farewell. The president told the crowd, “If we can make progress toward that goal on this trip, the world will be a much safer world, and the chance particularly for all of those young children over there to grow up in a world of peace will be infinitely greater.”

Nixon was known for his anti-Communist politics. While serving in Congress, he was part of a lobby that urged President Harry Truman not to establish diplomatic relations with Mao’s Communist government after it took over China in 1949. China fought American troops during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, after which the United States implemented a trade embargo and pledged its support to the Chinese government-in-exile in Taiwan.

Relations between the United States and China remained hostile over the next two decades. However, in the 1960s, China began to distance itself from its Communist ally the Soviet Union, leading to border clashes in 1969. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, saw an opportunity to play China and the Soviet Union off each other to improve relations with each country.

In April 1971, China invited the United States ping-pong team to play in China, marking the first time that Americans had been invited to Communist China. Dr. Kissinger traveled secretly to China that July and met with Zhou Enlai to prepare for a potential presidential visit. On July 15, after Dr. Kissinger’s return to Washington, Nixon announced that he would be visiting China the following year.

Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation allowed him to reach out to Communist countries without appearing “soft” on their ideologies and policies. The Times noted that he was the first president to visit a Communist country — Romania — in 1969 and that he would be the first president to visit China and later Moscow.

Nixon arrived in Beijing on Feb. 21 and met with the aging Mao for the first and only time. He spent most of the eight-day trip with Zhou, continuing the negotiations begun by Dr. Kissinger the previous summer. On the final day of the trip, Nixon and Zhou released the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the two countries pledged to pursue normalization of relations and the development of trade. However, the communiqué made little attempt to resolve the issue of Taiwan.

In the years after Nixon’s visit, the United States and China have opened trade and contacts. In 1979, the United States officially broke relations with the Chinese government-in-exile and established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Connect to Today:
In a 2011 Op-Ed for The Times, two career diplomats, former Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, said President Obama could learn from Nixon’s dealings with China in his approach toward Iran. They write that only Mr. Obama �n lead the United States to agreements with Iran that advance American national interests.”

Consider, too, the authors’ final argument: “There is no guarantee that diplomacy will succeed. But that is also true of war. And only diplomacy can offer Iran’s current rulers a stake in building a secure future without a nuclear bomb. Only diplomacy can achieve America’s major objectives while avoiding the mistakes committed in Iraq or Vietnam.”

In what ways are United States-Iran relations today similar to those between the United States and China in the early 1970s? How are they different? In your opinion, does the United States run the risk of repeating mistakes committed in previous conflicts? Do you agree that United States foreign policy should rely more on diplomacy than military force? Why or why not?

The Coming Demographic Collapse of China

China this century is on track to experience history’s most dramatic demographic collapse in the absence of war or disease.

China this century is on track to experience history’s most dramatic demographic collapse in the absence of war or disease.

Today, the country has a population more than four times larger than America’s. By 2100, the U.S. will probably have more people than China.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics typically releases population data for the preceding year in early March. This year, NBS delayed its announcement because the central government is scheduled next month to announce preliminary results of the 7th national census, conducted in November and December.

The image of Chinese economic and geopolitical dominance will be severely dented when Beijing releases census data. Xi Jinping may believe “the East is rising and the West is declining”—the money line from one of his speeches late last year—but that view will be exceedingly hard to maintain.

The Chinese take great pride in being part of the world’s most populous state. Beijing reported China’s population in 2019 hit 1.4 billion in 2019, up from 1.39 billion the previous year.

Chinese authorities will undoubtedly report an increase for last year as well. They are on record as believing the country’s population will continue to grow for more than a half decade.

Some are skeptical of China’s total population figures, however. Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told The National Interest that China in 2020 likely had a population of 1.26 billion. The noted demographer does not believe the number could have exceeded 1.28 billion.

Why did Yi provide a range? China’s demographic information is notoriously imprecise.

For one thing, officials as a practical matter cannot report births suggesting couples exceeded the current two-child limit.

Moreover, officials also have incentives to report that couples have used up their two-birth quota when they have in fact not done so. National Health and Family Planning Commission officials, Yi told Voice of America, report exaggerated births because real birth numbers, if known, would bolster the case for that body to be scrapped. Municipal governments, local education departments, and hospitals have been overstating China’s numbers for a different reason: to obtain subsidies or maintain budget allocations.

Yi’s estimates look reliable. True, Beijing scrapped the notorious one-child policy, perhaps history’s most ambitious social-engineering project, as of the beginning of 2016 and there was a spurt of births that year, but since then births have fallen every year.

Beijing has not announced births for last year, but early numbers indicate they plummeted from 2019. Births in the household registration—hukou—system plunged 14.9% to 10,035,000 last year. Because births so registered constitute about 80% of total births, He Yafu, a demographer, estimates total births for the country last year came in at 12,540,000.

Yi told me that the number of births for the country was in reality about 8 million and could not have exceeded 10 million.

Again, Yi looks correct. Provinces and other governmental units have reported data ahead of the census, and births were down more than 30% in some locations.

The big issue is China’s trajectory. Official media is cagey about a critical figure, the country’s total fertility rate, generally the number of children per female reaching child-bearing age. The official China Daily reports that Lu Jiehua of Peking University believes the country’s TFR, as the rate is known, “has fallen below 1.7.”

Lu is certainly right about that. The University of Wisconsin’s Yi told TNI that China’s TFR last year was 0.90 and could not have exceeded 1.1. Yi’s estimate is on the low end but is consistent with China Daily’s reporting of 1.05 in 2015.

Replacement TFR for most societies is generally 2.1 although some think China’s replacement rate is actually 2.2 because of higher child mortality.

In any event, China’s population will shrink fast. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projects China’s population will halve by 2100 if the TFR drops from 1.6 to 1.3.

China’s TFR, however, is far lower than 1.3. If its TFR stabilizes at 1.2—1.2 would represent a big increase—China will have a population of only 480 million by the end of the century.

If the TFR does not increase from where it is now, the country by then could end up around the 400 million mark. To put this in context, the United States, according to the U.N.’s latest projections, will have a population of 433.9 million in 2100, up from 331.0 million as of last year.

China now has a crisis. “Once it slips below 1.5, a country falls into the trap of low fertility and is unlikely to recover,” said He Yafu to the Communist Party’s Global Times. China is already well below that figure.

Beijing does not believe China’s population will begin to decline until 2028. Some believe it in fact began contracting in 2018, something evident by falling births.

In any event, as the official China Daily stated in December, “the trends are irreversible.”

That’s not good for the People’s Republic of China. As analyst Andy Xie wrote in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post this month, “Population decline could end China’s civilization as we know it.”

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Nixon Goes to China

When Nixon went to China, hed affirms it was one country.

Nixon goes to China, and affirms it's one country

Forty-five years ago this week, Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing and became the first American president to visit the People's Republic of China. Relations with the communist state had been antagonistic since its founding in 1949. When Nixon visited in 1972, the United States still recognized the defeated Nationalist Party, or the Guomindang (Kuomintang), as the legitimate government of China--despite that the Nationalists had retreated to Taiwan and no longer controlled any territory on the Chinese mainland.

Nixon's visit to China jumpstarted the process of normalizing relations between the PRC and the United States. It also pushed Washington to distance itself from Taiwan. In Nixon’s conversations with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, he listed five principles which were to form the basis of future American policy on this still contentious issue:

Nixon: …Principle one. There is one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. There will be no more statements made—if I can control our bureaucracy— to the effect that the status of Taiwan is undetermined.

…Second, we have not and will not support any Taiwan independence movement.

Third, we will, to the extent we are able, use our influence to discourage Japan from moving into Taiwan as our presence becomes less, and also discourage Japan from supporting a Taiwan independence movement…

The fourth point is that we will support any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue that can be worked out. And related to that point, we will not support any military attempts by the Government on Taiwan to resort to a military return to the Mainland.

Finally, we seek the normalization of relations with the People's Republic. We know that the issue of Taiwan is a barrier to complete normalization, but within the framework I have previously described we seek normalization and we will work toward that goal and will try to achieve it.

Later in their conversation, Nixon frankly laid out his domestic political calculus on Taiwan:

Now, the Prime Minister [Zhou Enlai] as a sophisticated observer of the American political scene, could very well interpret what I have said as being a self-serving statement, and solely devoted to assuring my political survival. I would simply respond by saying that there is something much more important than whether I am around after November this year or January next year, and that is the whole American-Chinese initiative. That is what is involved.

So what we need to do, and what we are trying to find is language which will meet the Prime Minister's need, but language which will not give this strong coalition of opponents to the initiative we have made, that we have talked about, the opportunity to gang up and say in effect that the American President went to Peking and sold Taiwan down the river.

The difficulty is that as you get into the political campaign, and as critics join in, not because they are for Taiwan but because they oppose the American-Chinese initiative, as they join together, the debate will force both candidates to assure the American public on this issue. This we must not let happen if we can avoid it.

Now I would like to come back to Taiwan with the Prime Minister's permission, after I have had the opportunity to discuss world views. I know this will take some time. Since Dr. Kissinger and the Deputy Foreign Minister had an interesting conversation today, I want the Prime Minister to know why we seem to be, shall we say, difficult on this issue. It is not because of a fatuous argument but because we see here a danger to the whole initiative. Our problem is to be clever enough to find language which will meet your need yet does not stir up the animals so much that they gang up on Taiwan and thereby torpedo our initiative. That is our goal.

I will simply sum up by saying I do not want to be forced when I return to the United States, in a press conference or by Congressional leaders, to make a strong basically pro-Taiwan statement because of what has been said here. This is because it will make it very difficult to deliver on the policy which I have already determined I shall follow.

At the conclusion of the visit, the two sides released a joint statement, the Shanghai Communiqué, and pledged to continue working toward the normalization of relations.

Nixon’s great decision on China, 40 years later

This month marks the 40th anniversary of an event so unexpected that it created a phrase that’s become part of our political lexicon: The shorthand is “Nixon goes to China,” meaning a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.

Richard Nixon is hardly a role model, overall he was a devious president who encouraged illegal actions by his subordinates. But he was a clever strategist — never more so than in the opening to China that culminated in his February 1972 visit to Beijing. Yet even Nixon, the practiced hypocrite, might not dare to buck conformity today.

Doing the unexpected is almost forbidden in American politics these days. The invisible thought police that govern our public space treat any deviation from past policy positions as a flip-flop or, worse, evidence of a character flaw. We pretend that good politicians are the ones who think the same thing, always, forever.

Politicians today are expected to do precisely what they have promised, like contract laborers. Newt Gingrich promoted this politics-as-straitjacket notion with his 1994 “Contract with America.” His GOP heirs in Congress sometimes act as if they’re ready to run the country off a cliff, to keep their campaign promises.

Mitt Romney’s biggest problem has been his contortions in denying the obvious fact that he’s a flip-flopper. By pretending that his Massachusetts health-care reform wasn’t a model for President Obama’s plan, he trivializes his own achievement and makes himself look like a phony, to boot.

So here’s a salute to inconsistency, cunning and other un-American traits that made Nixon’s opening to China possible. As we approach this week’s anniversary of his departure for Beijing, it’s useful to look back at one of the biggest — and best — flip-flops in American history.

Nixon arguably was the only U.S. politician who could have gotten away with such a bold move. He had the right-wing credentials, as an anti-communist and advocate of Taiwan. A typical Nixon blast was his 1964 comment during a trip to Asia that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the U.S. to recognize Red China, which is precisely what he ended up doing.

Nixon was struggling abroad as he contemplated the China move: He was bogged down in a deeply unpopular Vietnam War and looking for new ways to contain the Soviet Union. Working with his brilliant and ambitious national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, Nixon let himself think the unthinkable.

It’s interesting, looking back, to see how carefully Nixon prepared the way. In April 1971, he approved a trip to China by the U.S. national pingpong team, announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions, and said that one of his long-term goals was the normalization of relations with China. The Chinese responded that spring, through Pakistan, that Nixon himself would be welcome in Beijing. Nixon initially sent Kissinger instead, on a July 1971 secret mission that was facilitated by the Pakistanis. According to Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, Kissinger sent a one-word coded message that his mission had succeeded: “Eureka.”

Nixon announced Kissinger’s mind-boggling trip on television with what, in retrospect, was a comforting lie: He said that the opening to China “will not be at the expense of our old friends” in Taiwan.

Nixon departed on his own journey to Beijing on Feb. 17, 1972. His words to Mao Zedong, quoted by Ambrose, are a testimonial to the value of changing course when it’s advantageous to do so: “You are one who sees when an opportunity comes, and then knows that you must seize the hour and seize the day,” Nixon said, paraphrasing Mao’s own words. The statement was just as true of Nixon.

Before leaving China on Feb. 28, Nixon said at a banquet in his honor: “This was the week that changed the world.” That was a bit of Nixonian amour-propre, but he was right.

Great presidential decisions are often ones that escape the boundaries of what a leader may have said in the past, or what his political advisers recommend, or what the conventional wisdom of the day seems to supports. That was true of Nixon in China, Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis, Roosevelt in the Great Depression, Lincoln in the Civil War.

The leader who can deal with America’s problems today may be the one who’s ready to respond to complaints that his policies go against past positions with a simple statement: So what? I’m doing what’s right for the country.

The Nixon Dinners That Taught Americans to Stop Worrying and Love Peking Duck

Nixon’s favorite meal during his China visit was Peking duck. National Archives/7268173

Nixon’s unprecedented presidential trip to China in 1972 steadied a rocky diplomatic relationship. In the two decades since China’s Communist Revolution, the countries’ Cold War relationship had ranged from muted hostility to narrowly avoiding war, and Nixon’s trip was part of a carefully choreographed detente. But for Americans following along at home, what the president ate was just as interesting as the speeches. Each night, Nixon toasted Chinese officials with glasses of powerful baijiu liquor, sat down to lavish banquets, and ate dishes that few Americans had ever sampled.

Before Nixon’s visit, American Chinese food leaned heavily towards the “American” part of its name. To appeal to Americans, many Chinese chefs slathered dishes with gravy and served fortune cookies (a San Franciscan invention) and egg rolls (likely a New York invention).

Nixon toasts Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at the all-duck banquet. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/Public Domain

But the constant media coverage of Nixon’s week-long trip led many Americans to emulate his culinary adventures. According to Gallup polling at the time, more Americans heard or read about Nixon’s visit than any other event in Gallup’s history. The banquets were televised and attended by luminaries such as Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters. (Cronkite famously shot an olive airborne with his chopsticks.) On Nixon’s first night in China, the menu featured shark’s fin soup, steamed chicken with coconut, and almond junket (a type of pudding). In less than 24 hours, a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan recreated each dish, serving it to curious diners for months after Nixon’s return.

The all-duck menu from Nixon’s “reciprocal” dinner. National Archives/595300

Following diplomatic protocol, Nixon hosted one of the banquets. But a lack of space on the American planes kept him from bringing his own cooking staff. So the Americans brought champagne and California oranges for dessert, and a Chinese staff cooked an almost entirely duck menu for the American-hosted dinner. This was the president’s second night feasting on duck, which Nixon later called his favorite meal from the visit.

The publicity led to a Chinese restaurant boom. In a New York Times article describing the phenomenon, the paper listed “the more exotic Chinese cuisines” that Americans could now try, including moo shu pork, sweet-and-sour fish, and, of course, Peking duck. One Chinese-American restaurateur said that when her restaurant first opened, she “couldn’t give away a Peking duck.” Nixon, she added, was “the greatest salesman for Peking duck. Now many people want it.”

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The One China Policy: What Would Nixon Do?

After the famous opening to China, Nixon and Kissinger’s views of China policy diverged.

What would Nixon do? U.S. President-elect Donald Trump might contemplate that question as he prepares to confront the multiple challenges from China after eight years of the Obama administration and seven previous administrations, starting with Richard Nixon’s.

Fifty years ago, as he was commencing his second run for the presidency, Nixon wrote a Foreign Affairs article entitled “Asia after Vietnam.” Published In October 1967 with the United States still mired in the war in Indochina, it laid out his strategic vision for what was to become the seminal, titanic American pivot to Asia.

Inevitably, Nixon focused on the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. Since 1949, it had become the world’s most dangerous exponent of violent global revolution through its support for wars of national liberation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

China had also fought the United States and the United Nations to force Communist reunification of Korea, shelled Quemoy and Matsu to demonstrate its intention to take Taiwan, and was, at the time of Nixon’s article, aiding North Vietnam in its conquest of South Vietnam.

Nixon decided the situation had to change dramatically and he saw the need to “open China to the world and open the world to China.” He warned that a China relegated to “angry isolation” was a regional and global danger. “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”

However, the problem he saw was not simply Western exclusionary policies against China, but the nature of the Chinese Communist system itself:

The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions.

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When, as president, he began his opening to China, Nixon knew he was undertaking a huge “strategic gamble.” Nevertheless, he began the process with a series of unilateral initiatives and concessions by the United States.

First was America’s unsolicited intervention in the growing Sino-Soviet dispute that saw Soviet forces deploying near the Chinese border in 1969.

Nixon sent a clear message to Moscow that Washington would respond to any Soviet aggression against China — an unprecedented security guarantee to a country that at the time had forces fighting alongside America’s enemy in Vietnam. Yet, the U.S. asked nothing in return, and China offered nothing.

Then, further to show American good faith prior to his trip to China, Nixon gave Mao Zedong most of what he wanted on Taiwan. He ordered the Seventh Fleet out of the Taiwan Strait and the progressive withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan, where they had been stationed pursuant to the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 (when Nixon served as President Eisenhower’s vice president).

The unilateral U.S. moves paved the way for the 1972 Shanghai Communique — the original sin of U.S.-China relations. There, Beijing stated its one-China “principle” that Taiwan is part of China and would eventually be “reunified” with it by either peaceful or non-peaceful means.

Washington used the communique to state its own one-China “policy,” which implicitly accepted Taiwan’s future merger with China as long as it was accomplished more or less peacefully.

Having deterred a Soviet attack on China and given Beijing a long-term green light to absorb Taiwan, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, hoped only for Beijing’s help in arranging an honorable, or at least a face-saving, way out of Vietnam. But the two realists had already violated Kissinger’s general observation about negotiating strategy:

We [Americans] have a tendency to apply our standards to others in negotiations. We like to pay in advance to show our good will, but in foreign policy you never get paid for services already rendered.

In the end, the graceful exit from Vietnam never came. China continued its flow of arms, material, and some fighters in support of Hanoi’s final conquest of South Vietnam and America’s humiliating retreat.

Exactly when Nixon concluded that he and Kissinger may have made a bad deal with China is not clear, but he began expressing doubts as early as 1978 when he stated in his memoir (emphasis added):

We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.

Nixon’s thinking about China was evolving, from ambiguity to ambivalence to renewed concern on China — and to a new clarity on Taiwan. In October 1989, he visited China and met at length privately with Deng Xiaoping. His public statements about the U.S.-China relationship afterward were tactfully positive.

But his “Personal & Confidential” memorandum to Congressional leaders just days after the trip struck a more worried and pessimistic tone: “Sino-American relations are in the worst condition they have been in since before I went to China seventeen years ago.” He said the gap in perceptions over Tiananmen “is totally unbridgeable.”

Despite years of engagement with China, Nixon said the two governments still had “irreconcilable differences.” Arguing against closing China off from the world, he repeated some of the same words he had used in his 1967 article:

To leave the present and future leaders of China isolated, nurturing their resentments and even hatred of the United States because of what they consider to be unjustified actions against China is senseless and counterproductive.

Before his death in 1994, Nixon confessed to real fears about China’s direction. In an interview with his former speechwriter, William Safire, he was asked whether economic engagement and “our strengthening of [the Chinese] regime [had] brought political freedom.”

Nixon’s response was a chilling acknowledgement that his visit to China, which he had proclaimed in his Beijing toast as “the week that changed the world,” may have changed it for the worst. “That old realist,” Safire wrote in the New York Times, “who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: ‘We may have created a Frankenstein[‘s monster].’”

On the critical question of Taiwan, Nixon also adjusted his views to the changing reality, but here it was in a more positive direction, at least from a Taiwanese perspective. By 1994 he had concluded that history had passed unification by, and Taiwan’s democratic course made it an incompatible marriage partner for Beijing. “The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.”

Kissinger, on the other hand, never wavered in his adherence to the bargain he and Nixon had struck with Mao and Zhou En-lai. Indeed, on the question of Taiwan, he sometimes seemed more Catholic than the Pope.

When Mao told the two Americans that China would decide to use force against Taiwan any time within the next hundred years, Kissinger expressed surprise China could wait that long.

Similarly, Kissinger told the Asia Society in 2007 that Taiwan should recognize that “China will not wait forever” for unification. Xi Jinping echoed the warning in 2013 when he said “the Taiwan question cannot be passed from generation to generation.”

Unlike Nixon, who had made two trips to Taiwan as a private citizen in 1964 and 1967 (both as Chiang Kai-shek’s houseguest), Kissinger has never visited the place that was the centerpiece of U.S.-China negotiations. There is speculation that he has deferred his first visit until the original Nixon-Mao deal is consummated and the flag of the People’s Republic finally flies above Taipei’s presidential palace (where it has never been — so much for reunification).

Over the years, Kissinger has also often blurred the distinction between Washington’s one China policy, which essentially defers to the parties to negotiate a peaceful resolution and Beijing’s one China principle, which says the final outcome is non-negotiable and will be settled by force if necessary.

As keeper of the one China flame, Kissinger has encouraged all successive administrations after Nixon’s, as well as all five of China’s leaders, to adhere to the basic understandings and to do nothing to allow the Taiwan issue to upset U.S.-China relations.

Enter President-elect Trump and his telephone talk with President Tsai Ing-wen and his dismissal of the one China policy as sacrosanct historical principle. It might have been expected that Kissinger, privately and publicly, would have taken the untutored president-elect to the policy woodshed.

Instead, the 94-year-old former secretary of state suddenly undertook a remarkable flurry of shuttle diplomacy between New York and Beijing, engaging in a series of Kissinger-Xi and Kissinger-Trump meetings.

Then, in a Sunday talk show interview, Kissinger declined to share the Trump-inspired alarm expressed by many in the foreign policy establishment at the president-elect’s one China heresy. Rather, he seemed impressed that the new leader was “asking a lot of unfamiliar questions” and presenting “an extraordinary opportunity”:

[H]e operates by a kind of instinct that is a different form of analysis as my more academic one … [H]e’s raised a number of issues that I think are important, very important and, if they’re addressed properly, could lead to — could create results.

(Unlike most of his professional colleagues, Kissinger is again exhibiting the equanimity he displayed as a college professor in 1958 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s ultimatum over Berlin alarmed much of academia over a superpower confrontation. Kissinger calmly told his Harvard students that it would all blow over, not blow up. So it did.)

While the president-elect may well consider what the departed Nixon might do on China and Taiwan today, the rest of us are left to ponder what nonagenarian Kissinger is doing in support of the new president’s emerging Asia policies.

Watch the video: Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Nixon Library on Relations (August 2022).