Breaking Down the Barrier

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This was the week that changed the world. Thus did Richard Nixon describe his February 1972 trip to the land of the Great Wall. The Wall has always projected China's sense of self-sufficiency and its fear of outsiders. It's a testament to cultural grandeur and appalling brutality, to arrogance and apprehension. In 1972 the Chinese leaders welcomed the barbarian from afar to ward off the one just to the north. Given the immensity and complexity of this edifice, Nixon can perhaps be forgiven for his famously banal comment upon viewing it: This is a great wall. It was the only instance during this enterprise that he was unprepared or uninspired. America's opening to China was Nixon's greatest attainment. I was part of the Nixon delegation, though I didn't accompany him to the Great Wall. (I was working with Henry Kissinger on the joint communiqué.) But I was witness to all the other improbable hallmarks of that momentous week. The Historic Handshake. As he descended from Air Force One, Nixon purposely invested a routine gesture with historic resonance. Recalling John Foster Dulles' refusal to shake Zhou Enlai's hand at Geneva in 1954, the President ostentatiously walked toward his host with his arm outstretched. The American delegation tarried aboard the plane so that cameras would focus solely on this grasping of the new China hands. The most important summit in decades began with a tableau as austere as the chilly, gray morning. Only a score of notables, cloned in Mao jackets, and an imposing honor guard dotted the windy tarmac. No crowds or color greeted our black limousines as we whizzed past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was no time for sentiment or exuberance. This was a rendezvous grounded on sober national interests. The Enigmatic Emperor. Conjuring up imperial mystery and audacity, Mao Zedong summoned the leader of the free world to an audience at one hour's notice. In the Chairman's presence, even the charismatic Zhou paled. Mao greeted Nixon, Kissinger and me in a small, simple dwelling; surrounded by books, not courtiers; looking and sounding like the coarse peasant he was. He conducted the conversation in seemingly casual fashion, moving with broad brush strokes--sometimes brilliant, sometimes bawdy, sometimes baffling--from one topic to another. Taiwan was a small problem. Russia was a big problem. He had voted for Nixon. Chinese propaganda amounted to empty cannons. He had not remade China; he had only changed a few places in the vicinity of Beijing. When the 65 minutes were up, the already frail Mao had sketched China's strategic positions on all major issues. The Bizarre Banquet. On George Washington's birthday, in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, the fierce anti-communist toasted the communist Chairman. Nine hundred glasses clinked. The band of the army that fought us in Korea played America the Beautiful. The Bodiless Breakthrough. Forty hours of Nixon and Kissinger talks with Chinese leaders produced no written compacts or concrete accomplishments. Yet these exchanges--the most dazzling and subtle I have ever seen--yielded a breakthrough. In tacit fashion the two sides agreed to defer the issue of Taiwan and resist Soviet adventurism. China would take no action in Indochina while the U.S. sought an honorable exit. Beijing would not challenge American alliances in Asia. For China the summit ended its global isolation and extended geopolitical insurance. For the U.S. it brought diplomatic flexibility, better relations with Moscow, improved prospects for Asian stability and a dramatic boost for the American people to ease the pain of withdrawal from Vietnam. The Contentious Communiqué. The Shanghai Communiqué did not glow with the traditional bonhomie, converging views and shared aspirations of summit proclamations. Rather it recited the differences of the two countries on ideology, the world situation and specific issues. As bitter enemies for two decades, we found it more credible to acknowledge disputes than assert harmony. This reassured our respective friends on our intentions and served to highlight our accords, notably the joint determination to oppose hegemony. The unique communiqué is invoked to this day. Thus the Great Wall between China and the world was pierced. Since then many Chinese doors have opened, though communist barriers continue to wall in liberty. While Beijing and Washington have forged new links and explored new interests, the Soviet threat is gone, Taiwan is a thriving democracy, and America's dominant image of China is no longer Nixon standing on the Great Wall but a single man standing before a line of tanks. Winston Lord served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989