Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon
Chinese communist party leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing, China on February 21, 1972. (AP Photo)

Fifty years ago this month, Richard Nixon flew to China, met with Chairman Mao Zedong, and reopened China to the world. There is little evidence that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping will acknowledge, let alone celebrate, the golden anniversary of Nixon’s February 1972 visit. There’s no indication that the Biden administration will trumpet this anniversary, either. Instead, U.S.-China diplomatic and military relations continue in the deep freeze, edging toward a kind of new Cold War, even as global trade between the two nations approaches pre-pandemic levels. 

Set the clock back to 1999, about halfway between Nixon’s opening and now. The State Department sent me on a speaking tour of major cities in China, including Hong Kong, Hainan, Guangzhou, and Beijing, addressing student audiences at major universities and meeting with academics, journalists, and think tank experts. It was only a few months after the U.S. had accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, amid the crisis in the Balkans, and emotions were still running high. I was asked many times whether President Bill Clinton and NATO had deliberately hit the embassy as a warning to China to stay in its place. (I’m a friend of the former president and had been his ambassador to Finland, which is not a NATO country, but I knew the European scene.) The Clinton administration had apologized to the Chinese, and my denials were met with skepticism. I joked that the CIA had provided the military with out-of-date maps and that CIA officials were just people, not James Bond super-agents. My humor wasn’t very persuasive.

But suspicion was also tempered by affection. In Chengdu, student activists tried to burn down the U.S. consulate. During my talk at Chengdu University, our State Department staff nervously told me they recognized some of the students who’d attacked the embassy. At the end of my address, one of these students approached me. “Mr. Ambassador,” he said, “I want to study in America. Can you help me?”

I found the same mix of emotions everywhere—a concern that the U.S. wanted to keep China down and, at the same time, a desire to interact with Americans and, if possible, to cross the Pacific and experience our country firsthand. 

In Guangzhou, I stayed at the Swan Hotel, where American parents lived while waiting for passports from the U.S. consulate for their adopted Chinese babies. The lobby was filled with American couples pushing their new children in strollers—overwhelmingly girl babies, a sign of China’s one-child policy, which now seems to be softening as the country faces a birth dearth. 

More than 300,000 students from China a year have studied in the U.S. in the past seven years. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, where I hold a professorship, our largest cohort of international students hails from China, and it’s not just in STEM subjects. Many of the top students in my diplomacy courses are Chinese. I have written recommendations for Chinese students. Occidental hired a former Chinese Foreign Service officer and Harvard PhD to teach and advise the college’s president on outreach to Chinese applicants. That such a post exists might have startled Nixon and Mao.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have studied Chinese. My 14-year-old grandson Viggo is fluent in Mandarin and has been in Chinese immersion in a Los Angeles public school since kindergarten. He keeps up his conversational skills by chatting via Skype twice a week with a Chinese tutor in Guilin.

In 2008, my niece Erica Keen-Thomas, the environmental officer at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, monitored the air quality at the American compound and published the results online, nudging the Chinese government to release their data on air quality. The monitoring program expanded to U.S. consulates around China. Environmental issues have been one of the major sources of spontaneous demonstrations in China, forcing the government to pay more attention to the issue.

While flying around China on that public diplomacy trip back in 1999, I noticed (and was relieved) that the Chinese airlines used Boeing jets, not Russian-made aircraft. On one flight, I was invited to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot, who told me that he had trained at a Boeing facility in Seattle. As the Washington Monthly contributing editor Jim Fallows reported in his book China Airborne: The Test of China’s Future, it was not only Boeing that helped China modernize its air travel system. Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies visited the country to consult on creating a safe, civilian air travel network. The American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing organized the U.S.-China Aviation Cooperation Program, which operated training programs for Chinese air traffic controllers, provided air-worthiness inspectors for Chinese airlines, and sent teams of Chinese air officials to the U.S. for management courses at air traffic control centers and pilot training sites of the major airlines.

American economists and government officials advised the Chinese on establishing a market-oriented economy. Only months after Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, a delegation from the American Economic Association visited China, including giants of the field Wassily Leontief, John Kenneth Galbraith, and James Tobin. As Julian Gewirtz describes in his book Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, such notable economists as the Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Tobin visited China in the 1980s, giving lectures on macroeconomic policy making. The World Bank organized and hosted conferences of Chinese and Western economists. Younger progressive economists like James Galbraith, Michael Reich, and Steven Cohen visited in the 1990s to offer advice to Chinese policy makers.

And, of course, there has been direct American investment. Since the nineteenth century, American businesses have dreamed of entering the Chinese market. Nixon’s visit, followed by Deng Xiaoping’s opening to private investment, sped up the process. Jim Mann, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent, chronicled the efforts of American Motors to establish one of the first overseas car companies in China in his book 1989 Beijing Jeep: A Case Study of Western Business in China, which now seems like centuries ago. Since then, American car companies have built an important presence in the Chinese economy, especially Tesla, which makes more than half of its vehicles in China. GM, through joint ventures, employs over 50,000 workers in China, selling more than 4 million cars, including Buicks, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets.

In the decades following the Nixon-Mao meeting, China became the world’s manufacturing hub, filling Walmart shelves, Amazon boxes, and the welcome arms of American consumers. As China grew its middle class, the U.S. did not suppress its economic growth or its entry into the global marketplace, despite the fears I heard so often about the U.S. trying to keep China in its place. 

The Clinton administration championed China’s admission into the World Trade Organization. At the same time, not enough was done by Clinton or subsequent presidents to cushion the impact on American workers from the economic impact of China’s growth in trade—a situation that Donald Trump would exploit when he ran for president. The widely held belief among American government and business leaders that the presence of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Shanghai Disneyland, Hollywood movies, and American brands would lead to a democratization of China proved misguided. As Mann writes in his book The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China, it’s possible that “trade and investment with China are helping to perpetuate the one-party system … Americans, in particular, like to believe that they are changing China and that the Chinese people are becoming Americanized. That has been true throughout much of American history … These assumptions have never been borne out in the past.”

Was it shortsighted for the U.S. to help China become our global rival? Many Americans who interacted with China’s rise and engagement believed that it would lead to greater democratic freedoms. Others who studied the history of Chinese interactions with the West knew that outsiders have never changed China into a Western model. Still, we felt that engagement was the best approach for all sides while remaining clear about our values. Such engagement is no longer so easy or comfortable. Clyde Prestowitz made a case in these pages for finding something better than the WTO system.

When I traveled to China in 2016, the atmosphere had changed, and the Chinese narrative that the U.S. was keeping them down had gone from inchoate suspicion to official government policy. I was invited to speak at the same universities in Guangzhou that I’d previously visited. The U.S. consulate staff arranged the talks, but when I arrived in China, I was told that my lectures had been canceled by “security officials,” with no reason given. My university host was instructed that my talk was limited to only 12 graduate students. The largest audience I addressed was a gathering of a few hundred people inside the American consulate. The few Chinese who’d been invited and attended were photographed on their way into the building.

The U.S. consul general told me how he and his staff were dogged by fake news crews who photographed them whenever they attended events outside the consulate, roughing them up or driving dangerously close to their cars. This was China’s new, aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy in action, endorsed and supported by the central government in Beijing.

During the 2016 trip, I had to use a VPN to access my email because Google had been banned in China.

While serving as the American ambassador in Finland, I had a friendly relationship with the Chinese ambassador. We shared informal meals at our respective residences and occasionally met for coffee. My job at Occidental includes representing the college with the diplomatic community of consuls general in Los Angeles. When I returned to the college in 2000 after government service, I reached out to the Chinese consul general and invited him to visit the campus. He would ask me to dinners at his residence when visiting officials from Beijing came to LA. At one dinner with a top national security official dominating the conversation, I suggested that we go around the room and each say a bit about our background and how we learned about each other’s countries. This gave the younger Chinese staffers a chance to talk. After the meal, the Chinese consul general thanked me for my dinner table diplomacy. A few years later, a new consul general and his wife arrived—a power couple from Beijing who had served in top posts. Although we knew American diplomats in common, I was quickly ghosted. Invitations to our campus went unanswered, and invitations to the Chinese residence stopped. From time to time, staff from the consulate would attend talks on international affairs that I organized on campus, but they would sit silently, taking notes and not engaging.

In a class I teach at Occidental on sports and diplomacy, I show students a documentary on the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming’s first year playing—in 2002—for the Houston Rockets. Yao is warmly received by Houston fans; he good-naturedly responds to taunts from Charles Barkley, and plays well on the court, making him an effective sports diplomat for China and a mainstay for the Rockets until he retired in 2011. Basketball, first introduced in China by American missionaries, is one of the country’s most popular sports. When I spoke in China in 1999, I would ask students who the most popular American in China was. Invariably, the answer was Michael Jordan; I told them that the most popular Chinese person in our country was Jackie Chan.

Such bonhomie is gone. Sports has unfortunately become a zone of contention rather than bringing China and the U.S. closer together. In class we discuss China’s hostile reaction to the comments of the Houston Rockets general manager in support of the Hong Kong protestors, and the World Tennis Association’s cancellation of tournaments in China because of the mysterious silence of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who announced on social media, and then quickly deleted, a charge of sexual harassment against a top Chinese sports official. I tell students about the experience of a former Occidental student who played arena football in China, starting as the quarterback of the Beijing Lions. He roomed with a Chinese player from Xinjiang, and at every city on the team’s road trips their hotel rooms were searched by security forces. 

The Trump administration tried to play hardball with China over trade, enacting tariffs on manufactured goods. He started the FBI China Initiative, harassing Chinese American scientists and falsely accusing some of espionage, undermining legitimate efforts against Chinese spying, mainly on U.S. business. Trump shut down the Fulbright exchange programs and cut off CDC cooperation with Chinese scientist on the eve of the pandemic. He withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. None of this changed Chinese behavior.

We need to drop the arrogant assumption that we can change China, and instead change ourselves to become a stronger, more democratic country. A test case of whether our political parties can cooperate on an intelligent strategy toward China is the $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. The question of how to respond to a rising China is really a question of how to revitalize America.

Derek Shearer

Derek Shearer, former US ambassador to Finland, is the Chevalier professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and directs the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.