My recent summary of last week’s news failed to recognize an important anniversary . It was thirty-six years ago last Tuesday (26 February) that the Shanghai Communique was signed by President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai.
February 22nd, the anniversary of RN’s arrival in the PRC is not infrequently noted; but the anniversary of the Communique is usually overlooked. The first step onto Chinese soil was epoch-making; but the innovatory document signed at the end of the trip was what enabled the relationship between the two great nations to continue to develop.

As RN described it, the Shanghai Communique ““broke diplomatic ground by stating frankly the significant differences between the two sides on major issues rather than smoothing them over. Thus the text is surprisingly lively for a diplomatic document.”

It did, indeed, represent a break from the traditional anodyne diplomatic formulae that had become customary in conventional make-nice post-summit statements. The first substantive section began “The U.S. side stated” and then ran down our position on the major issues — Taiwan, Vietnam, North and South Korea, Japanese rearmament, etc. This was followed by a corresponding section beginning “The Chinese side stated”. This unprecedented —and realistic— use of selective and creative ambiguity allowed both sides to agree to disagree while still continuing gingerly to pursue the development of amicable relations.

In RN, RN recalled the banquet after the signing of the Shanghai Communique:

In my toast at the banquet on our last night in China I said, “the joint communiqué which we have issued today summarizes the results of our talks. That communiqué will make headlines around the world tomorrow. But what we have said in that communiqué is not nearly as important as what w sill do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and twenty-two years of hostility which have divided us in the past.”

I raised my glass and said, “We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world.”

In 1972, Charles W. Freeman, a young foreign service officer at the beginning of what would be a long and distinguished career, was assigned as RN’s Chinese interpreter. In a lecture delivered to the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai on February 21st, Ambassador Freeman vividly recalled joining the presidential party on the re-fueling stop before continuing on to Beijing and the historic events that unfolded there:

On a chill, gray Monday morning, exactly thirty-six years ago today, I stood on the steps of the old Hongqiao Airport terminal. I had arrived in Shanghai twenty minutes in advance of President Nixon. I had studied Chinese in Taiwan, but this was, of course, my first encounter with the Chinese mainland. My eye was drawn to a billboard that defiantly proclaimed, much as those at the airport in Taipei did at the time (with seven of the same eight ideograms), “we have friends all over the world.” As Air Force One pulled up and cut its engines to refuel and take on a Chinese navigator before flying onward to Beijing, I heard a bird sing. Judging from the presence of birds but the absence of aircraft at Hongqiao, I deduced, all those foreign friends of China couldn’t be conducting their comradely visits by air.

As our president and his wife deplaned for an off-camera cup of tea, I struck up a conversation with a Chinese foreign ministry official, the first I had ever met. I was, it turned out, also the first American official with whom he had ever spoken. That day, February 21, 1972, culminated in President Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao and dinner with much of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in Beijing. It was a day of mutual discovery for many Chinese and Americans. Not just for me and others who took part in some or all of its events, but for all whose stereotypes were blown away by the images on television.

In his lecture, Ambassador Freeman expressed three main concerns regarding US-Chinese relations in 2008: the possibility of a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait before the new Taiwanese President takes office in May; media obsession with the single issue of human rights unbalancing coverage of the Beijing Olympics in August; and Americans placing blame on China for the looming economic slowdown/recession.

As the photos and films of RN’s historic trip to China are so well known, I’ll close this post with a less conventional illustration: the opening scene from John Adams’ opera Nixon in China —- depicting RN’s arrival aboard The Spirit of ’76 at Beijing. Anyone familiar with the life-size statues at the Nixon Library will recognize the frozen moment of that famous handshake across what Zhou described to RN (in the car on the way into town from the airport) as “the vastest ocean in the world — twenty-five years of no communication.”

The minimalist music, like scotch and camembert, can be an acquired taste. But I think that the power of this Houston Opera 1987 world premiere production is palpable even in this greatly reduced format. Much of the dialogue in this scene (by the librettist-poet-priest Alice Goodman) is based on the greetings and pleasantries RN and Zhou actually exchanged; great events often begin with banalities.