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It’s Been 50 Since Nixon’s Historic Visit to China. How Have US-China Relations Progressed Since Then?

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: February 22, 2022
At the foot of Air Force One's air-stair, US President Richard Nixon (second left) shakes hands with the Premier of the People's Republic of China En-Lai Chou as First Lady Pat Nixon and various, unidentified Chinese officials watch in Beijing, China on February 21, 1972. (Photo by Bryan Schumaker via Getty Images)

For half a century, the U.S. engaged China hoping to “convert” the communist country with capitalism. Now, it’s unclear who is influencing whom more. 

News analysis

When U.S. President Richard Nixon set foot on Chinese soil for the first time in 1972 to shake hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, it marked the first time an American president had visited China since the communist takeover in 1949. 

The gray winter morning where the two world leaders met was seen by many as a symbolic gesture — signifying an improvement in diplomatic relations between the world’s most powerful and most populous countries. 

Prior to Nixon’s visit, for over two decades, there was virtually no contact between the two countries after the “loss” of China to the communists and the beginning of the Cold War.

After the Cold War came to an end, an invisible race for who would succeed as the world’s new power was underway. Despite repeated Chinese disavowals, the U.S. and its allies worried that the democratic-led world that triumphed over the Soviet Union would be challenged by the authoritarian model of a powerful and rising China. 

Nixon’s eight-day visit opened the door for the forming of diplomatic relations between the two world powers, but would the visit help reshape existing paradigms as they were known in the industrial era? Would power dynamics of the Cold War transfer into China’s transition from impoverished isolation to a new role as a “growing global power broker” and economic partner to the West? 

President Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon visit the Great Wall of China. (Image: via Getty Images)

Nixon’s agenda

In addition to meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong and visiting the Great Wall, Nixon’s visit also included the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 and the severing of formal ties with Taiwan — which the U.S. had until then recognized as the government of China after communist rebels took over the mainland in 1949. 

“The U.S.-China relationship has always been contentious but one of necessity,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford University, told ABC News. “Perhaps 50 years ago the reasons were mainly economic. Now they are mainly in the security realm. But the relationship has never — and will never — be easy.”

Nixon’s maiden visit to China was also seen as a “pivotal event that ushered in China’s turn outward and subsequent rise globally,” Dali Yang, lecturer at the University specializing on China’s politics and economics told The Washington Post.

After Mao’s death in 1976, new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in an era of partial economic liberalization — creating a state-led capitalism that has seen a massive flow of wealth to China, while the Communist Party continues to reign supreme. 

Indeed, as Western politicians and financiers imagined that they could change China by introducing it to market economics and Western pop culture, the CCP made use of its growing economic leverage to influence the West. 

In 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre shocked the world, but it was a mere speed bump in the road of economic engagement between Communist China, its Asian neighbors, and Western democracies. 

China’s growing economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s also enabled a major expansion of its military influence in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Although the CCP claims its expanding military prowess is only seeking to defend its territory, it also holds practical control over islands claimed by Japan in the East China Sea and by Taiwan and Vietnam in the South China Sea. These oceans are home to vital shipping lanes and natural resources that affect the global supply chain.

In addition, China has also expanded its presence internationally via overseas military bases, looking to build new bases in Africa. Recent reports suggest that the Chinese regime has shown particular interest in building a base on the continent’s Atlantic coast of Equatorial Guinea. 

Chairman Mao Zedong meets President Richard Nixon in Beijing, 1972. (Image: via Getty Images)

From a handshake to diplomatic boycotts

Instead, the 50-year anniversary of Nixon’s historic visit comes at a low point in US-China relations today. Many in Washington view China as a growing economic and military threat, with particular concern directed at the nationalist ideology promoted under Xi Jinping. 

Though academics and U.S. officials had warned of the CCP’s growing power since the 2000s, it was only during the Trump administration that America began taking the “China Challenge” head-on. 

Trump officials identified the conflict as one between liberty and communism, delivering harsh broadsides against Beijing that called into question the legitimacy of the CCP, while praising the Chinese people and their civilization. At the same time, the administration imposed steep tariffs on Chinese goods, sanctioned CCP cadres known for violating human rights, and stepped up diplomatic support for Taiwan. 

And while Chinese state-linked academic Di Dongsheng applauded the ascendancy of Joe Biden as U.S. president-elect in November 2021 — grinning that Beijing’s “old friends” were back in office — the new reality of U.S.-China relations has meant that the White House has had to maintain a tough stance on China. Support for Taiwan has continued, and the U.S. started a diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics earlier this month in protest of China’s human rights record.

However, the CCP’s influence runs deep, and its abuses continue unchecked. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long track record of targeting religious faiths and minorities for violent assimilation to its atheist ideology. According to findings from the U.N., more than one million Uyghur Muslims remain jailed in concentration camps across remote parts of western China. Organ harvesting from practitioners of Falun Gong and other prisoners of conscience also continues, aided in part by pharmaceuticals imported from the West.

Studies have also shown that 90 percent of American media outlets are owned by six corporations with deep business ties with China, resulting in reduced coverage of atrocities committed by the CCP.

Some of the world’s largest companies such as Apple and Cisco have come under increasing pressure to address Beijing’s “repression of human rights and democracy,” Biden’s administration has said.

Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), who currently serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made the case that the Chinese regime’s conduct in its own country and around the world is growing “increasingly hard to ignore” and businesses that choose to open themselves to China’s communist ideology may face complications down the road. 

Coons criticized the “Great Firewall of China” that the government uses to “block off the internet in China and require censorship and use it to coordinate surveillance and repression of its own people.”

Coons also noted that both the Biden and Trump administrations called China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang a genocide that should be condenmed by the world, regardless of political affiliation. 

China, meanwhile, has denied violations of human rights, rebuking what it calls “American meddling in its internal affairs” and warned the U.S. and its allies of  “playing with fire on the Taiwan issue,” and to brace for potential repercussions.

President Richard Nixon with Premier Zhou Enlai (left) and Shanghai Communist Party leader Zhang Chunqiao at a farewell banquet during Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. (Image: via Getty Images)

Biden: hoping for ‘a more predictable relationship’ 

While staying tough on China has proven to be a “rare bipartisan issue,” the Biden administration has clarified that its stance on Beijing is one of competition, rather than confrontation. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, wrote in a 2020 editorial that attempting to change the CCP’s system or bring about the end of communism in China could lead to “catastrophe.” 

In a virtual meeting that took place in November last year between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden stressed the need for “guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” 

A diplomatic relationship with the U.S. would also have vast implications for China, according to Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

“The U.S. held the key for China’s modernization, so China benefited from this immensely… Without the U.S., I don’t think you would see China as a big power today,” Zhao told the Washington Post.

Although Biden has said he wants to achieve a more “predictable relationship” with China, major differences over trade, economics and the CCP’s human rights record make mutual understanding increasingly challenging and elusive. 

Now, the prospect of long-term stability between the world’s leading powers introduced by Nixon’s visit seems to be further out of reach today than ever before.