Posted by: williamjsykes | May 19, 2009

Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972. Part IV


Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and

Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972. 

Part IV: Sino-American Rapprochement of 1972 and Conclusion.

On the center of such a smooth transition in Washington’s stance towards China was a rather odd duo of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, with Kissinger pursuing his Harvard-made brand of Realpolitik without much ideological concerns, while Nixon serving as the leader of conservative Republicans appeasing ideologically-driven opposition from his own party. Such pattern, I observe, bears a striking resemblance with the dual presence of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Chinese political landscape at the time, although the latter duo employed considerably harsher tactics when dealing with opposition. Indeed, while the White House was able to put down its domestic opposition concerning its China diplomacy in a rather smooth fashion, its counterpart in the Forbidden City, as later events would tell, made its move with an utter ruthlessness.

The Nixon Administration’s China diplomacy coincided with its implementation of the so-called Vietnamization policy, which focused on providing South Vietnam with adequate military advising and equipment so it eventually will be capable of defending itself without American presence. In doing so, the White House was obliged to devise a policy to keep America and its allies from being outflanked by Soviet influence should Saigon fall to Communist forces, as such a setback was considered a viable possibility even when Vietnamization policy was in its pinnacle with some news of success.[1] At the meantime, the news of Sino-Soviet confrontation in border areas soon arrived to Washington, after which resumption of diplomacy with China rose from its former obscurity to a very attractive option to contain the expansion of Soviet influence in areas surrounding Indochina[2]. In December 1970, Mao invited Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star over China, from which Mao -though informally- suggested that he would like to meet Richard Nixon in person.[3] At a similar timescale, a friendly encounter between American and Chinese national table tennis teams in Nagoya, Japan in 1971 led to an invitation of American team to the Chinese soil, which brought about what became generally known as “Ping-Pong diplomacy.”[4] This, among other factors, raised the general populace’s anticipation over an improved relationship with China in not a distant future. Nevertheless, the Nixon Administration’s pursuit of new relations with the People’s Republic was carried out in a very discreet manner, with even key Cabinet figures including Vice President Spiro Agnew and Secretary of State William Rogers remaining unaware of the course of Nixon’s China policy.

Nixon’s pursuit of rapprochement with China while leaving the matter unbeknownst to most of American populace was made possible by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s odyssey to China in Summer 1971. A prominent international statesman of his age who found his inspiration from Prince of Metternich, a 19th Century European diplomat who coordinated a longstanding peace in Congress of Vienna in 1814, Kissinger was fond of saying “policy emerges when concept engages opportunity.”[5] Such an opportunity seemed to emerge when China and the Soviet union engaged in a bloody conflict of 1969, yet Washington at the time was yet to materialize any policy to take advantage of the situation. In his attempt to keep the yet fragile China diplomacy in secret, Nixon asked Pakistani president Yahya Khan, who became a staunch U.S. ally after India’s shift towards the Soviet Union, to inquire whether Beijing’s leaders are interested in summit talks with their counterparts in Washington.[6] Upon receiving this message, Zhou responded that  Beijing “has always been willing and has always tried to negotiate by peaceful means … A special envoy of President Nixon’s will be most welcome in Peking.”[7] That “special envoy” of Nixon’s proved to be no less than Henry Kissinger, himself undoubtedly a staunch proponent of China diplomacy as a manifestation of Realpolitik.

Despite these rapid developments, the China diplomacy (or America diplomacy from Zhou’s perspective) yet had one major obstacle to overcome – to bring Kissinger to mainland China while diffusing the public eyes, which by itself proved to be a Herculean task. A kind of good news was that the American populace at the time was just as unaware of a fact that the Nixon administration channeled its communication with Beijing through Pakistan, whereby Kissinger could visit Pakistan with a supposed goal of “information trip” without much suspect. On July 9th, 1971, Kissinger feigned illness and missed a day of “work” in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan.[8] Just hours after Kissinger got off his airplane in Beijing airport. The man who was to delegate the Beijing Politburo was no one other than Zhou Enlai, himself a man of ample reputation as an international statesman. A man who began his political career as a Communist ideologue and Chinese nationalist, Zhou freshly held memories from 1954 when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake his hands. Kissinger, aware of that anecdote, offered to shake Zhou’s hands first, which the Premier agreed. One could describe this moment as a time when one chapter of world history -namely the old Cold War order under bipolar hegemony of Washington and Kremlin- ended to pioneer a new paradigm in world politics that materialized soon after Zhou’s encounter with Kissinger. Less than a month after Kissinger’s secret negotiation with Zhou Enlai, Richard Nixon announced the visit and declared that himself would go to China within a year to pursue a rapprochement with the People’s Republic.[9] Nixon’s announcement immediately inflicted an enormous impact across the globe, with Nationalist regime in Taiwan, still the de jure government of the Chinese subcontinent according to the United Nations, taking this turn of events as something of a death sentence.

Nixon’s declaration of his secret endeavor in China was met with joyous response within the United States. Democratic Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield, usually a harsh critic of the Administration, commended the President’s attempt, saying “I’m astounded, delighted, and happy.”[10] Such enthusiasm, however, hardly paralleled the kind of reception Nixon’s move received in Washington’s non-Communist allies. Japan, for instance, which had little if any reason to object to the rapprochement itself, protested Washington’s pursuit of such a major shift in its foreign policy without notifying its yet most important ally in Northeast Asia.[11] Similar sentiments could be shown across East Asia, although one could as well argue that such grievance largely stemmed from military dictators -whose legitimacy could be put in jeopardy should the rapprochement succeed-, not those countries‘ general populace. Meanwhile, Zhou, now with assurance from Washington, began pursuing what by far would be his most crowning achievement in a long, colorful diplomatic career: China’s entry to the United Nations with Taiwan’s expulsion.

Before moving on, let us briefly make a flashback to a negotiation that took place between Zhou and Kissinger earlier in the year. Both the Chinese Premier and Metternich from Yonkers[12] could easily agree that each man’s country was to work with one another to counter Soviet threats and sphere of influence. There was, however, one major issue that the two -let alone each country’s hard-line conservatives- could not bring about a full resolution: Taiwan. Taiwan at the time was still somewhat considered as a legitimate government for China, a notion endorsed by mostly the United States and its anti-Communist allies in the surrounding areas. Zhou, by contrast, made it clear to Kissinger that Taiwan is part of a Chinese nation, whereas treating Taiwan as either a legitimate regime of China or an independent country would put Beijing’s national sovereignty into jeopardy, thereby derailing any negotiations between Beijing and Washington. Conversly, Washington was obliged appease its allies in East Asia, who were appalled about the very fact that Kissinger went to Beijing to negotiate with what they considered as a beacon of evil, whereas it had to make at least superficial attempts to prevent Beijing from denying Taiwan its membership to the United Nations.[13]

China’s position towards Nationalist government in Taiwan is made clear in a variety of documents written after the Communist takeover of 1949. In his talks with Kissinger, indeed, Zhou merely reprised his government’s position, which Washington, now just as if not more desperate than Beijing, having to at least partially accept this rule or break up the chessboard altogether.[14] Faced under such dilemma, Nixon, long known for his often unforeseen political tactics[15], devised an adroit solution that left no one to complain. First, Nixon sent the youthful George H.W. Bush, who at the time was in the pinnacle of a distinguished diplomatic career, in the United Nations General Assembly to present Washington’s supposed position that Taiwan was not to be expelled from the organization. At the same time, Nixon sent Kissinger to China to dine and wine with members of the Beijing Politburo, thereby practically assuring his new allies that nothing will happen to Beijing’s dismay.[16] Indeed, in the United Nations General Assembly that year, Taiwan was ousted from the organization -to much joy for Beijing, for both genuine nationalist concerns and a sense of vengeance-, with the elder Bush lamenting what he viewed as a crushing defeat for a country he serves, while Kissinger remarked that the development created “a possibility to make a new beginning. If it is carried out with wisdom and patience on both sides, it can mark the start of a new relationship between our peoples.”

After that fateful day that changed the course of modern Chinese history to an immense degree, Zhou celebrated a capstone in his renowned career with a glass of Mao Tai,[17] a Chinese hard liquor Kissinger described as “not used as a jet fuel just because it is too flammable.“[18] Meanwhile, Taiwan’s ouster, while viewed by the West as a rather natural process, came with a considerable dismay for Washington’s allies in East Asia. In Japan, the longtime Prime Minister Eisaku Sato resigned his post, with his successor Kakuei Tanaka hailing the Nixon Administration’s policy as “a new age,” “a turning point,” and a “new chapter.”[19] Nonetheless, Washington’s pursuit of rapprochement with China did inflict certain amount of damage in Japanese-American relations, as the newly-recognized China demanded a larger amount of apology to Japan for its alleged atrocities during the course of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Republic of Korea, technically still at war with its northern counterpart, went as far as imposing a semi-permanent martial law that remained in effect for almost a decade.[20] However,  Washington’s acquisition of China as a de facto ally against Soviet sphere of influence vastly outweighed such setbacks in a long run, prompting Richard Nixon to later remark that “If we had not taken that initiative and China had been forced back to the Soviet orbit, the threat to the West of Soviet communist aggression would be infinitely greater than it is today.”[21]

Before and during China’s successful entry to the United Nations, both Beijing and Washington managed to tranquilize domestic opposition to a major diplomatic upheaval they were about to complete. In what once again is in a stark contrast with Zhou’s image in the West as a mild-mannered negotiator, the Premier overlooked or played a crucial part in the purge of Vice Chairman Lin Biao -a staunch Communist and once a heir apparent to Chairman Mao-, and evidently took part in later campaign named “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius.”[22] The purge of Lin Biao, the head of hard-line military operatives, was naturally followed by the removal of military officials against the rapprochement. The only formidable opposition to the United States initiative that was untouchable by the Premier was the Gang of Four led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who genuinely -albeit from ideological concerns- resented both the rapprochement itself and Zhou’s proposed handling of the American guests.[23] Sensing such trends, Zhou also made remarks to reconcile with the remaining hard-liners within Chinese Communist Party, once having been quoted as saying that the United States is pursuing an improvement in its relations with China only because it is now “under immense pressure engendered by the American people to improve Sino-American relations.”[24] At the meantime, Washington also made a series of moves to soothe its opposition within itself, though Nixon’s China initiatives by this point became a virtual consensus in America’s political landscape. During Taiwan’s ouster from the United Nations, Nixon sent California governor Ronald Reagan to the Nationalist realm to explain this apparent betrayal, a duty the Gipper accepted after uttering the following words: “I think Red China is a bunch of murderous bums, but I think this chessboard is turning towards their favor.”[25] Meanwhile, plans for Nixon’s visit to China began to materialize, with February 1972 decided as the time for the conclusion of this historic development.

Nixon arrived to Beijing in February  21, 1972, roughly eight months before he would score a smashing victory over George McGovern in a highly successful reelection bid. As Nixon, Kissinger and their entourage came off their plane, Zhou, still having not entirely erased the image of Dulles in 1954, offered to shake hands with Nixon, a man who built his reputation as a stern anti-Communist. This image, broadcast across the United States with the grandeur of a Broadway picture show, symbolized the victory of prudence and realistic concerns over ideology and belligerence. Indeed, the trio of Zhou, Nixon, and Kissinger was by no means a group of uncalculating ideologues, with each man’s pursuit of his nation’s self-interests stern and unflinching. While negotiating with his formidable counterparts from Washington, Zhou was also obliged to deal with the more ideologically-driven Mao Zedong, who believed that the Premier was being too soft to the Americans, who the Chairman believed were in heart treacherous counterrevolutionaries. On the very sensitive Taiwan issue, for instance, Mao insisted that it cannot be resolved by peaceful means, reminding the Premier of their days in Shanxi Province when both men were surrounded by a horde of Nationalist troops. Attempting to take advantage of an apparent disagreement between the two was the infamous Gang of Four, who attempted to purge from Zhou from his post, a move that was put to a halt only when Mao himself intervene on behalf of his longtime comrade.[26]

Nixon’s visit to China was finalized by the signing of Shanghai Communiqué in February 28th, the last day of this event. The Communiqué, among other contents, made clear that Beijing and Washington was to restore full diplomatic relations, which completed Zhou’s quest for a worldwide recognition for the People’s Republic. Much of the negotiation went rather smoothly, with both camps generally agreeing upon one another in issues ranging from Japan’s status, a gradual withdrawal of American presence in Vietnam, among other concerns. The most delicate issue proved to be Taiwan, as the United States at the time retained formal ties with the last castle of Chiang’s dominion in Formosa. As the end product of the negotiations, American delegation finally agreed that Taiwan was part of China, though it remained rather ambivalent -albeit in document- about who was the de jure ruling faction of the Chinese realm.[27] Despite its rather obtuse nature, the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 practically sealed a pattern where Beijing consolidated both its control of the mainland and recognition as the legitimate governing body of China, as by this point it became clear that Nationalist regime in Taipei stands virtually no chance in recovering its former territories in mainland China.

The completion of Sino-American rapprochement finalized Zhou’s lifelong project of creating a new China that is regarded as a fully sovereign state free of both foreign encroachment and diplomatic isolation. Not only did this permanently change the Western perception of China, with Beijing now universally recognized as a governing body of the Chinese subcontinent, Zhou’s decades-long drive despite a successive hail of obstacles also paved the way for a number of other tectonic shifts in world politics outside China. Later in 1972, the Soviet Union, now under a tremendous pressure from a united front of Beijing and Washington, signed SALT I, the first treaty agreed between the world’s two superpowers to limit its nuclear capabilities. The United States, at the same time, was able to implement its policy of lessened presence across the globe, a move that was anchored by the presence of China as a friendly nation. Perhaps ironically, after completing this colossal task, the Premier’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. Until shortly before his death, Zhou launched a new initiative known as Four Modernizations, which aimed at constructing China to a modern industrialize state by 2000, which was to become the cornerstone of China’s socioeconomic policy shortly after his death. As a man of remarkable sympathy and ruthlessness who possessed the zeal of a Chinese patriot of his age and a keen calculating mind, Zhou Enlai was undoubtedly one of the most compelling and influential figures of the 20th Century. It is now a cliché across the Western world that it was “Chairman Mao” who single-handedly built a modern Chinese state. Given what we evaluated throughout this essay, however, I’d like to conclude this work by suggesting that as a leading politician who shaped much of China’s foreign relations when the Communist state was constantly at its peril, Zhou deserves a considerable degree of credit when one attempts to inquire the making of a modern China.


[1] TIME Apr. 05, 1971.

[2] The Communist victory in Indochina was largely contained in Indochina itself, with neighboring nations of Thailand and Indonesia being able to counter Vietnamese threats through a solid nationhood (which Saigon never possessed) and assistance from Western powers. Even within Indochina itself, the fall of Saigon in 1975 did not necessarily result in a complete Soviet victory in strategic sense, as Cambodia, under its Maoist leader Pol Pot, soon established a regime whose policies often clashed with Soviet and Vietnamese interests, a pattern that explains Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. The United States and China continued recognizing Pol Pot’s ousted regime as a legitimate governing body of Cambodia (“Kampuchea”), whereas it was Pol Pot’s delegation that represented Cambodia in the United Nations until the very end of Cold War.

[3] Herring, 776-777.

[4] Ibid., 777.

[5] TIME Oct. 01, 1979. The China Connection by Henry Kissinger

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] TIME Jul. 26, 1971. To Peking for Peace.

[10] Ibid.

[11] TIME Oct. 04, 1971. Japan: Adjusting to the Nixon Shokku.

[12] Nickname for Kissinger at the time.

[13] By 1971, the People’s Republic garnered a compelling momentum in its long-fought campaign to enter the United Nations, with Washington, now pursuing rapprochement with Beijing to counter Soviet threats, no longer objecting to China’s entry itself, though it did object the idea of stripping Taipei of its delegation.

[14] Barmouin 292-296.

[15] Thus the nickname “Tricky Dick.”

[16] “Tricky Dick” indeed.

[17] Ibid.

[18] TIME Oct. 01, 1979. The China Connection by Henry Kissinger

[19] TIME Magazine Feb. 12, 1973. Entering an Uncertain Age.

[20] TIME Magazine Oct. 30, 1972. Power Grab.

[21] Nixon, Real Peace, 67.

[22] Barmouin 306-308. Wait… I thought this was a Confucian guy.

[23] Ibid. 294.

[24] Ibid.

[25] American Experience with David McCullough, Nixon’s China Game, PBS.

[26] Barmouin 299-301.

[27] Herring, 719-793.



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