Nixon in China Anniversary

AP Beijing Bureau: My students, Nixon


It’s 40 years since Nixon came to China and “changed the world.”

I always hated Richard Nixon (devious, lying, lawbreaking, etc. And let’s not even start on Henry Kissinger.) I spent 3rd grade afterschool out distributing impeachment flyers. But living in China has tempered some of those feelings.

Tonight with our favorite students after dinner, we watched a documentary about Nixon’s breakthrough & the media: “Assignment: China,” by former CNN China chief Mike Chinoy.* The first reporters here ate all their meals together, trapped in a filthy hotel — basically going nuts from claustrophobia, while feeding their editors what the American news consumer had been starved of for 30 years: brightly colored exotica. At least until the Democracy Wall movement (’78, ’79) brought human rights to the fore.

The Chinese-Americans in that first group (WSJ, an AP photog) seem to have done high-quality work, however — they could slip away.

Quaint times they were, observes Winston Lord, son of the Winston Lord (a then-Kissinger assistant) who flew over with Nixon…no Twitter, Facebook, cable news. (No WordPress.) No choking pollution, just bikes. But when the reporters didn’t sufficiently hide their talks with sources on controversial matters, their Chinese informants would be thrown into jail for 3, or 11, years. (“I felt really bad about it,” says the Time correspondent.)

Big of him. There are probably countless examples waiting for their Schanberg/Waterston style cinematic treatment.

And yet fun times were beginning for China — women getting their hair permed had just been legalized.

And fun times for American visitors. Let it be said: I’m reminded daily that it is a breakthrough being here. Old people still stare, middle-aged people kiss our children because they rarely see (or never saw) blue or green eyes, and still, there’s suspicion and monitoring in various forms. My best souvenir is this photo. My students, visiting the Beijing bureau of the AP — an American news organization that wouldn’t be here if not for Tricky Dick — sitting there below the agency’s iconic photo of Nixon at the Great Wall, taken during that historic visit 40 years ago.

*now with USC’s U.S.-China Institute

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