From the Editors: February marks the thirty-eighth anniversary of President Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing, and, back in 1972, TNR was one of the few media outlets able to get a first-hand report from the trip. John Osborne’s report, “Mission to China,” provided a snapshot of a country far removed from the modern economic power it is today. “China, feared though it has been and mightier now than it has ever been before, is still a poor country and, in the scales of world power, a weak country,” Osborne wrote. “[T]here was something in the grey pallor of the afternoon, the rows of bare trees and the bare fields and the glimpses of huddled farm buildings and of laboring men and animals along the road, that bespoke to us the poverty and weakness.” As he followed Nixon everywhere, from a state dinner to the ballet to a gymnastics exhibition, Osborne also described some of the inevitably awkward diplomatic exchanges between the president and his Chinese hosts. “Hearing the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] band play ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and ‘Home on the Range’ for an American President and his wife deserved to be but wasn't noted by Nixon as one of his historic firsts.”
Much has changed in China, and in America’s relations with the country, over the past 38 years. Osborne’s vivid reporting about a burgeoning world power, however, remains timeless. Enjoy!
At a ballet staged for the Nixons on the second night of their stay in China, the thought came that we of the President's press party really were in attendance upon a dream. The ballet was The Red Detachment of Women, the tale of a peasant's daughter who escaped the clutches of a cruel landlord and his running dogs, joined the Red Army, fought with it and the broad revolutionary masses (who appeared to include a large proportion of beautiful women) until the victory of 1949 was won and the People's Republic was established "under the banner of Mao Tse-tung." It was a crude and simple tale, superbly presented, in which all of the enemies of the revolution were villains and all of its heroes were paragons of proletarian virtue. The landlord (suitably slain by the peasant's daughter) and his evil henchmen could, without excessive strain of the imagination, have been taken to typify Mr. Nixon's wealthy supporters and many of his other admirers at home. The brave and glowing fighters "for the freedom of all mankind," as the official synopsis of the ballet described them, could with equal ease have been supposed to represent Mr. Nixon's "campus bums" and militant segments of the Students for a Democratic Society. And there were Richard Nixon and his wife, applauding the show and, after it was over, thanking Premier Chou En-lai and Chiang ching, the small and demure and formidable wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, for arranging it and going with them to see it.
For the reporters who arrived on Sunday afternoon, 16 hours ahead of the President, the dream began in the wintry dusk that shrouded the way from the Peking Central Airport into the city. It was a poor time and a good time for getting to the city that Richard Nixon had been yearning and plotting to visit at least since 1967, when he wrote in a famous magazine article of the need to bring the United States and the People's Republic of China into accord. It was a poor time in the sense that we were weary, dulled by 13 hours in the air on the trip from Honolulu with brief stops at Guam and Shanghai. The doctors and advance men who counseled Mr. Nixon to break his journey across the international dateline with two nights in Honolulu and another in Guam were wise. The reporters had the same two nights in Honolulu, but the sudden leap from our Saturday to China's Sunday and the welcome at the Shanghai airport, meant by our Chinese hosts to be friendly and pleasant, but wearing because it made for useless delay, left us in a mood to be captious and disillusioned. We were both, and it was a good thing that we were.
In our fascination with our marginal share in a great adventure that could change the world, even the few old China hands among us needed to be reminded of a point that Chou En-lai has been making since last July to American enthusiasts who have interviewed him. The point is that China, feared though it has been and mightier now than it has ever been before, is still a poor country and, in the scales of world power, a weak country. Silly though the remark that follows may seem to people who know enough to distrust instant judgments, it is true that we saw the poverty and perceived the weakness during the 40 minutes of our bus ride from the airport into Peking. Over the years, I had seen deeper poverty and national weakness in other countries of Asia and some of my companions had observed far more of it, in pre-Communist China and elsewhere, than I had. But there was something in the grey pallor of the afternoon, the rows of bare trees and the bare fields and the glimpses of huddled farm buildings and of laboring men and animals along the road, that bespoke to us the poverty and weakness that Chou Enlai emphasizes when it suits his purposes.
The ride through the western sector of Peking, down the magnificent expanse of Chang an jie avenue and past Tienanmen Square, where Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 and where millions of Chinese come every year to celebrate the Republic's survival and success, had a similar effect in a rather odd way. This surely was not the storied Peking, the ancient city of gentle charm that countless Chinese and foreign writers depicted in the time before Mao and his Republic. This, it seemed then and has seemed in the three days since then, is a city of massive new' buildings, of national glory anticipated and exalted and yet to be realized to the full, and grimly sought until it is realized. Strangest of all to an occasional traveler who has lived with the bustle and racket of Hong Kong and Taipei, amid the sound of Chinese voices raised in continuous noisy dialogue, this Peking turns out to be a quiet city. On side streets off the boulevards and the immense ceremonial square where people are dwarfed by the expanse, there is a deafening and puzzling quietude. I read nothing into this fact except that it is an interesting fact.
Perhaps the pervasive quiet of Peking had something to do with the notably quiet reception that Mr. Nixon and his party got on Monday morning. We reporters related it at the time to the reception we got at the temporary press center in the Palace of Nationalities, adjoining the Nationalities Hotel where we were quartered. Our reception was at once friendly and clearly intended to remind us that we were here at the invitation and as the guests of a great country and a great government. It fell to Yu Chung-ching, a tall and authoritative official of the foreign ministry, to drive the point home. Mr. Yu, who speaks English with a British accent acquired at the London School of Economics in 1966, held forth at length upon the splendid facilities provided for us: among other things, 154 chairs at 22 tables equipped with 44 microphones; 25 teleprinter and telephone channels for communication, mostly by satellite, with the United States; 10 broadcast booths at the center and a whole new building, erected from scratch, at the airport for network studios and transmission. After noting that these conveniences had been provided by the People's Republic of China at the request of White House officials, Mr. Yu said with a rolling flourish: "If the American officials wish to use the press room for press conferences or other purposes, they are requested to raise the matter with the information office of the foreign ministry and consideration will be given to the matter." Reporters accustomed to the authoritative manner of Ronald Ziegler, the President's press secretary, absorbed the lesson and silently thanked Mr. Yu.
Ziegler said afterward that the Monday welcome "was exactly what we expected." The waiting reporters more or less expected it, too, having learned (for example) that the diplomats who represent 66 governments which recognize the People's Republic had been told on Friday, after persistent and often plaintive inquiries, that they would not be permitted to attend the President's arrival. It was an eerie welcome, all the same. No casual onlookers of any nationality were admitted to the airport. In a typical and previously agreed piece of reticence, neither Chinese .nor American officials would identify the Chinese greeters until they appeared, minutes before the President's jet landed and taxied up to the terminal. Just before that happened, the United States and Chinese flags were run up two flagpoles. Fifteen other poles remained naked. Premier Chou En-lai, placid and erect and unsmiling in a grey overcoat over a dark suit, marched onto the tarmac at the last moment, at the head of 17 senior officials and a separate party of 25 junior dignitaries. A People's Liberation Army honor guard, some 500 men in khaki and blue, precisely the same height and impressively drilled, and a PLA band were in place when the presidential plane door opened and the Nixons stepped onto the ramp. Mrs. Nixon's right hand rose in a short and tentative wave, then dropped. For the first time in more than three years that I have watched him leave his plane, the President kept his hands down and still. Within five minutes it was all over - the subdued greetings at the foot of the ramp, the playing of the national anthems, the march past the honor guard, and the departure in black Chinese limousines and the smaller grey sedans.
Once in Peking, down Chang an jie Avenue past Tienanmen Square to the compound of government guest houses where the Nixon party was put up, the only onlookers were people who had been forbidden by the police to cross or traverse the avenue. Half a million people had been summoned to the square to greet Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, a comparable throng to honor President Ceasescu of Romania. As foreign ministry functionaries and the interpreters assigned to the American reporters kept saying, it was proper, polite and appropriate - all, they said, that the chief of a government that didn't recognize the People's Republic could expect and, the available American officials said, in fact did expect. That was true enough. But an event soon to be known confirmed an impression that I had brought to Peking from Washington. The impression was that the Peking leaders wanted this visit and wanted the world to believe that Mr. Nixon wanted it more than they did. "He wanted to come so we invited him," Chou told interviewers last summer. This version was privately resented and quietly countered at the White House, but not so audibly or in such a way as to irritate Chou and Mao.
The confirming event was Chairman Mao's meeting in secret on Monday afternoon, in his yellow-roofed and modest home in a corner of the old Forbidden City, with Mr. Nixon before the President got down to serious talk with Premier Chou. The President knew before he left Washington that he would meet and confer with Mao, but he indicated during his flight from Washington that he didn't count on it happening so early in the visit. The fact that it did was supremely important to the visitor and his hosts, because it was a signal to the people of China that the anti-American signs which still graced the walls on Tienanmen Square no longer meant much. There was sure to be at least one more meeting with Mao; Chou implied the certainty when he said not long ago that the results and significance of the Nixon visit would not be known until the President had his "final talk with Chairman Mao."
The crowded Monday ended with Premier Chou's obligatory dinner for the President and his party. It was a sumptuous affair in the monumental Great Hall of the People, one of 10 huge buildings constructed in 1958 and 1959 in celebration of the Republic's 10th anniversary. President Nixon at table with Premier Chou and officials of the People's Republic under the American and Communist Chinese flags and in world view by way of television, was the stuff of dreams.
Hearing the PLA band play "Turkey in the Straw" and "Home on the Range" for an American President and his wife deserved to be but wasn't noted by Nixon as one of his historic firsts. Watching the President touch glass some 70 times with Chinese officials at the Premier's and adjoining tables was something to remember. But it was the toasts, Nixon's to Chou and Chou's to Nixon and to their respective countries, that historians will ponder.
The most to be said for Nixon's was that it was conventionally eloquent ("This is the hour. This is the day for our two peoples to rise to the heights of greatness") and that he imitated Lincoln at Gettysburg ("What we say here will not be long remembered. What we do here can change the world"). With television obviously in mind, he read his text straight through instead of pausing at intervals, as he usually does on such occasions, for translation in the host's language. Chou paused frequently for translation, and his statement had bite in it. The bite came with his recitation of the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" that he first enunciated at the Bandung Conference in 1955. When Chou spoke of the duty of nations to practice "mutual respect for sovereignty" and "noninterference in each other's internal affairs," he was talking about Taiwan, the island home of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China, and once more putting Nixon on notice that there cannot be normal relations with the People's Republic so long as the United States questions Communist China's claim to Taiwan. He didn't mention other contentious issues that he has said he wants to discuss with Nixon - total American military withdrawal from Asia and the nearby Pacific, for instance - and he said the visit was "a positive move" toward "the normalization of relations." It was a happy sort of evening and it boded well for the outcome of the Nixon visit. An important question was what and how much the Peking government would tell the people of China through its controlled media.
That question was answered on Tuesday, with a bang. The government's principal newspaper. The People's Daily, printed on its front page a big picture of Mao greeting Nixon; another of Mao and Nixon with Chou and Henry Kissinger, and a third of Chou greeting Nixon at the airport. Four more pictures on the second page, with the texts of the Chou and Nixon toasts, completed a statement to the Chinese people that this visit had the total blessing of Chairman Mao and that they should expect good and great things for the People's Republic to flow from it. Four pictures in Wednesday's paper, one of them showing Chou, the Nixons and the Chairman's wife, Chiang ching, applauding the performers of The Red Detachment of Women, and a spate of friendly stories, continued to prove' that what we are seeing here isn't a dream.
Midway in this incredible visit, the word is that Peking is quiet and that it's snowing and that Richard Nixon, taking in an exhibition of Chinese gymnastics on Wednesday night, must be a pleased and happy President. He isn't forgetting, one may be sure, that it's 1972.
By John Osborne