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Experts reflect on Nixon

Experts reflect on Nixon's 1972 visit to China and U.S.-China relations

On the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's visit to China, experts discuss "the week that changed the world."

UCLA Today

Forty years ago, Americans watched as U.S. President Richard Nixon and his delegation landed in Beijing to meet with China’s Chairman Mao Zedong. China was still a mystery to much of the world at that time, having been largely closed off to foreigners. This visit marked the first time that an American president had visited China, and the images and accounts that were filed by a contingent of carefully selected American journalists fed our nation’s curiosity about life in the Communist nation.

This milestone anniversary of what some still consider “the week that changed the world” was marked on Feb. 23 by UCLA’s Burkle Center for international Relations, Center for Chinese Studies and Confucius Institute, who presented “Nixon in China: A Legacy Revisited.”  The event began with opening remarks from Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Institute, Yunxiang Yan, director of the center for Chinese Studies, and Qiu Shaofang, the Chinese consul-general in Los Angeles.

The day featured two video segments, one comprised of previously unreleased footage of the Nixon visit and the other a compilation of audiovisual materials from the collections of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Both are available online.

It also featured panel discussions with General Wesley K. Clark, a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Chen Jian, Michael J. Zak chair of History for U.S. China Relations at Cornell University; Tim Naftali, New America Foundation senior research fellow and presidential scholar; Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College; Julia C. Strauss, a senior lecturer in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a visiting researcher at the UCLA Asia Institute; and Susan Shirk, director of the University of California system-wide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Ho Miu Lam Chair of China and Pacific Relations at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of “China: Fragile Superpower.”

“I think it’s clear, looking back 40 years, that  the world really was changed in a fundamental way by this trip,” Richard Solomon, president of the United States Institute of Peace, told the audience during his keynote presentation.

He went on to explain the political circumstances that contributed to America’s strategic interest in developing a relationship with China, specifically the Cold War and China’s growing tension with the Soviet Union, which at the time was one of America’s greatest enemies.

Nixon’s visit opened China to the world and opened the door for internal reform and national development, said Solomon, adding that China went from a largely peasant nation with 80 percent of people living in rural areas to an industrialized country with more than half of its population living in urban areas within a relatively short period.

“It’s really mind-blowing what’s happened to China,” he said. “The whole country has been transformed in a little over one generation.”

In addition to China’s growth as a global super power, Solomon spoke about the ebb and flow of America’s relationship with China over the past four decades.

The 1980s were characterized as the golden era in U.S-China relations, he said, adding that this changed in the 1990s with the suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square when the world condemned China for its actions and economic sanctions were implemented.

Over the next two decades, the power conflicts that dominated the 20th century made way for strong economic integration between the two countries that is both beneficial and competitive, said Solomon.

“Today, the U.S. and China are locked into a relationship of economic interdependence. We share security concerns, and we’re the two major world powers most capable of shaping this new international environment to our mutual benefit or to great, great loss.”