When Nixon Went to China, Cameras Went Along
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Consider this phrase that pundits sometimes throw around - it's like Nixon going to China. It means a politician is so tough on his opponents, that he has the credibility to do something unexpected. He can reach out to the other side.
If you'd ever wondered, the phrase comes from a time that Nixon went to China -a president who made his name as an anti-communist visited communist China. That historic trip started 35 years ago today.
And NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel was there.
TED KOPPEL: I don't know if it's possible for anyone who wasn't alive 35 years ago to imagine what it was like for an American to even contemplate a trip to China back in 1972. I remember one reporter writing that it was like visiting the dark side of the moon. Having Richard Nixon - the archdeacon of anti-communism - as the agent of change was merely one of the more extraordinary aspects of that trip.
The United States and the People's Republic of China had engaged in what amounted to a 24-year long diplomatic sulk, neither side recognizing the other. Actually, it was even sillier other than that. We pretended that Taiwan was China, and Communist China, Red China, Mainland China didn't exist, which is to say it wasn't a legitimate country.
And then, all of a sudden, on that cold winter morning in February of 1972, there we were - President Nixon being greeted at Beijing Airport by Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai. It was, in those days, a profoundly depressing country. Except for the occasional splash of red provided by the Chinese national flag, everything else seemed to be a dirty, dull gray.
People spoke in shades of gray. Nobody dared admit to a personal goal or aspiration. It was all about serving the country. If a nation needed a young man or woman to shovel pig manure in Manchuria, then that, by golly, was what he or she wanted - no, no, no - yearned to do.
The country had been subjected to so much indoctrination along those lines that you could no longer tell who believed what anymore. On the surface, at least, you've never seen such a passion for self-sacrifice. China was in the final convulsive stages of the cultural revolution - Mao Tse-tung's final great contribution to misery and mass murder. But few of the experts realized it at the time.
If someone on that historic trip had dared to suggest that one day - say, 35 years hence - China would be crawling with get-rich-quick hucksters, with everyone dialing everyone else up on the latest cell phone, that getting rich -or at least as unpoor as possible - would become the very essence of acceptable Chinese behavior, they would have carted the poor fool away.
I remember one scene out at the Ming tombs. Several bus and vanloads of American reporters had been carted out there. It was bitter cold. But there -picnicking, listening to battery-powered radios and snapping one another's photographs as though it were the most natural thing in the world - were a few dozen Chinese citizens.
I told my camera crew that we were going to wait until all the other Americans had left. And sure enough, a couple of open trucks pulled up. Someone collected all the radios and cameras, and the cast of the Potemkin village that had been assembled for us was trucked off.
I duly reported what we had witnessed and filmed. And the next day, I was told that word of my report must have reached the Chinese foreign ministry, because Chou En-lai mentioned the incident to Henry Kissinger and even issued a sort of modified apology. Poor old Chou En-lai.
That little show the Chinese put on was just 35 years early, and a mere shadow of what would actually happen to China once a free market economy of sorts was unleashed there. You won't get many young Chinese volunteering to shovel pig manure in Manchuria these days - unless, of course, there's a ton of money at the bottom of the pit.
This is Ted Koppel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.