Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:50 PM CST – China


Nixon’s Return to China


Shortly after his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, former US President Richard Nixon returned to China, where he received the red carpet treatment

Nixon visits Peking University, Beijing, March 1, 1976 Photo by CORBIS

The Nixons and Zhu Xianda (left), chief of protocol of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was sent to the US to fetch Nixon Photo by UPI

On December 31, 1975, an aged and seriously ill Mao Zedong received Julie and David Eisenhower, the daughter and son-in-law of Richard Nixon, at the luxurious Zhongnanhai compound, the lakeside residence for paramount Party leaders located at the heart of Beijing.

“I am waiting for your father.” Mao told them.

Incumbent President Gerald Ford, the man who replaced Tricky Dicky, had just departed the Chinese capital Beijing after a four-day visit. No further progress had been made in Sino-US relations. The Soviet Union, which had inadvertently brought China and the US together through mutual enmity in 1972, had suddenly re-emerged as an obstacle to a deepening of ties.

In July 1975, the US and the Soviet Union inked the Helsinki Accords, signaling a long-awaited thaw in relations between the two superpowers at the heart of the Cold War. This was not good news for Beijing, which felt the chance of US cooperation in creating a counterbalance to the perceived military threat of Soviet troops along its Northern border slipping away.

A displeased Chairman Mao, who had made no secret of his preference for US-China rapprochement over dealing with the Soviet Union, came up with a surprising move – inviting the disgraced Nixon to return to China, a blatant snub of his successor Ford.

Excessive Hospitality

After resigning the Presidency in 1974, Nixon had remained close to the Chinese leadership that had opened their arms to him during his historic first visit in 1972, which established formal relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China for the first time.

Days after Nixon left the White House, he received a telegram from Premier Zhou Enlai, who expressed his best wishes and extended an invitation to return to Beijing.

Two months later, while Nixon was hospitalized with phlebitis, Mao telephoned him in person to reiterate the same invitation. Rumor had it that Mao was sympathetic to Nixon, who he perceived as having been unfairly maneuvered out of power following the Watergate scandal.

“They’ve made too much fuss over the Watergate affair. Please write to Nixon and tell him I miss him a lot,” Mao told Thai Premier Kukrit Pramoi during a meeting in July 1974.

Huang Zhen, director of the China Liaison Office in Washington, DC, was sent to visit Nixon at home in late August 1975, to reiterate the urgency of accepting Mao’s invitation. The Chairman, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, was in increasingly poor health, and while this information was being kept from the public, few in Zhongnanhai expected him to live for many more years.

  Nixon called Henry Kissinger, who had remained Secretary of State, to express his wish to visit China in September if Gerald Ford did not oppose it. Kissinger advised him not to visit China until his successor had, advising Nixon that to jump the gun might look like an attempt to meddle in international relations.

When his daughter, who traveled with the Ford delegation, brought back another invitation from Chairman Mao, Nixon readily accepted. Overjoyed, Mao ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive Nixon as a head of state, even dispatching an official plane to bring the former president to Beijing. According to Zhu Xianda, then chief of protocol of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such a deviation from protocol had occurred only once before, when the president-elect of Mozambique, Samora Moisés Machel, was brought to Beijing in a Chinese plane in 1975 because his administration could not afford to send its own plane.

Zhu was a member of the Nixon welcoming committee assembled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and accompanied the plane, a Boeing 707 just like Nixon’s Air Force One, which was equipped with a kitchen and two staterooms for Nixon and his wife.

On February 6, 1976, State news agency Xinhua announced that Nixon would arrive on the 21st of the same month. Ford was only notified of the visit a day earlier.

The timing could not have been more sensitive, given that Ford was campaigning for reelection and would square off in the New Hampshire Republican primary against Ronald Reagan that same month. The US media, meanwhile, honed in on the politics of Nixon’s visit, and Ford’s inability to rein in the actions of his predecessor.

Nixon, meanwhile, was intractable. As he topped the staircase leading onto his luxuriously appointed Chinese plane, he turned and flashed reporters his trademark grin, last seen as he boarded the helicopter that would escort him from the White House.

However, once aboard, according to political consul Qian Dayong of the China Liaison Office, Nixon simply took his seat and spent most of the flight staring out of the window, his brow furrowed. Not even the extravagant appointments, or the stewards’ resolutely referring to him and his wife as Mr and Madam President, could bring Nixon out of his reverie.

The plane landed in a freezing Beijing at 8 PM on February 21, with the newly-appointed premier - and Mao’s anointed successor - Hua Guofeng, on the tarmac to greet Nixon, though the Party had spared him the honor guard he had viewed on his last visit.

His private audience with Mao lasted one hour and 40 minutes. The Chairman had given Ford two hours.

In a speech delivered during his visit, Nixon said that it was “naive” to believe that the mere act of “signing statements of principle” could ensure lasting peace. This was interpreted as criticism of President Ford’s support for the Helsinki Accords, though Nixon’s office denied this claim.


After Nixon returned to the US, Charles Cross, the US Consul General in British Hong Kong, sent a telegram to the State Department to report on his talks with Fei Yimin, then president of Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao. Fei, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was usually seen as a spokesman for the mainland government.

Fei said that Beijing had “underestimated the reaction of the US people” to the former president’s visit. He claimed that after it had “got the message,” China had toned down Nixon’s welcome – denying US journalists access to his plane, prohibiting a live US television broadcast of the visit, and also keeping American reporters away from the former President during various legs of his trip.

Fei reiterated four times that the US had “misunderstood China’s attitude toward the Watergate scandal.” He went on to talk down the political implications of a disgraced President visiting what remained officially a hostile foreign nation, insisting that Nixon was invited “out of respect” for his efforts to improve Sino-US relations. Fei jokingly added that he was “relieved” that President Ford had won the New Hampshire primary.

While this opaque quasi-apology didn’t cut much ice with the American media, Qian Dayong, speaking to NewsChina, believes it was a sincere attempt to manage a delicate diplomatic situation.

Qian told NewsChina that Nixon had, off the record, agreed with Party leaders to establish official diplomatic relations between the US and China in his second term. When the Watergate scandal broke, however, the promise was out of the question, and Nixon would acquire a reputation as a corrupt, paranoid and inveigling figure while his successes in mending relations with China, not to mention his efforts to end the Vietnam War, would fade into the background.

Maintaining a public and seemingly intimate relationship with Mao Zedong did little to improve his image at home.

In November 1977, Gerald Ford was defeated at the ballot box by Jimmy Carter. Despite being both a Democrat and an ardent critic of the Nixon administration, when it came to China, the two men apparently saw eye-to-eye. It was during the Carter administration that the US tied official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China - on New Year’s Day, 1979.


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