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'China boy' recalls the start of Sino-US ties

THE veteran foreign affairs expert Nicholas Platt met former US President Richard Nixon only once but the giant wheels that were set in motion by his historic visit to China in 1972 provided enough work to keep the young diplomat busy throughout Asia for the rest of his career.

Platt, who went on to become US ambassador to three countries and president of the influential Asia Society, was one of the wise men who former President Nixon called his "China boys" - staffers who smoothed the way to opening relations with China less than four decades ago.

As part of Nixon's traveling party during his landmark trip to China in 1972, Platt, now 74, participated in the top-level meetings that signaled the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

His recent memoir, "China Boys: How US Relations with the PRC Began and Grew," chronicles the preparations and negotiations that surrounded Nixon's trip, his travails in setting up the first diplomatic office in Beijing, and some of the first exchanges between Americans and Chinese.

A fluent Chinese speaker and writer, Platt was in Shanghai last month fulfilling his role as an honorary professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and recalled his meeting with Nixon.

"I only actually met him once and it was the day the Shanghai Communique was signed, the day it was issued," Platt said. "We were leaving the next day and I had complained to Secretary of State William Rogers that I had met Zhou Enlai and all those people but I had never actually met the President."

So Rogers invited him to a meeting in the Presidential Suite on the 15th floor of Grosvenor House in the expansive grounds of the Jin Jiang Hotel complex on Maoming Road.

"It was late at night, and I found Nixon dressed in a silk dressing gown over his pants and shirt with a big cigar in one hand and a big dark scotch and soda in the other," he said. "And then the experts came in and instead of them telling Nixon what they were going to tell Asian leaders, he told them exactly what they were going to say.

"I was just a fly on the wall but I was impressed. Nixon's reputation as the foreign policy president of his time was more than upheld in that meeting. After it was all over and I'd been introduced to him he took me to the door and that was when he said 'Well, from now on you China boys are gonna have a lot more to do'," Platt recalled.

While many biographies, academic studies and memoirs have trawled through events surrounding the Nixon visit and subsequent normalization of relationships between the two now global superpowers, Platt's book provides the first insight through the eyes of a serving bureaucrat.

"The central thesis of the book is that while the State Department and 'China boys' were relegated to the nuts and bolts °?- trade, investment, education exchange, science and sports - and President Nixon and Henry Kissinger managed the geo-strategic balancing of the relationship, the nuts and bolts over time became the relationship," he said.

"And after Nixon and all those people were gone, and after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the structure fastened by the nuts and bolts became so sturdy that it was able to survive the removal of the strategic rationale and a lot of other developments.

"So this book is really written for the China boys."

Platt, the father of famous film star Oliver Platt recently seen in the movie "2012," moved from the US foreign service to become president for 12 years of the Asia Society and remains President Emeritus. He visits China at least twice a year.

"I found that if I don't come every six months I lose track because the place is changing so rapidly. And my fascination with it continues," he said. "Once you're bit by the bug, you're infected. You have to keep bouncing back and forth."

Platt is a veteran China watcher and analyst, having worked in Hong Kong before the opening-up and being a VIP guest for the handover ceremony in 1997. Despite all his first-hand knowledge of the development of Sino-US relations, he still expresses astonishment at China's progress.

"We didn't have a clue that China would take off economically but when you keep a lid on something for long enough and you have some control over the way it blows you can do extraordinary things," he said.

"Those of us working in the liaison office from 1973 had a chance to start the people-to-people links which have become so huge. This really was the ground floor: Olympic swimmers coming for the first time, Philadelphia Orchestra playing sellout concerts and a whole range of other delegations.

"So the linkage between Americans and Chinese took off and for all our differences and all of our background ignorance about each other, we are a good fit."

The retired diplomat believes there is a compatibility between Chinese and Americans that enables them to work together as successfully as any two peoples in the world and "they've never really had any trouble in getting along."

"We both admire people who work hard, we both focus on families, we respect education, we both have rather similar, if you can generalize, earthy senses of humor and that kind of thing," he said.

"We got over the Korean War, we got over McCarthy, we got over all these obstacles, now everyone's watching each other with some trepidation but I'm saying, look, don't worry about it. Somehow we're so intertwined now that nobody's in the position to stand off and launch a haymaker."

Published in English this year by Vellum, the book, Platt's first, is a memoir that he describes as a "worm's eye view" of well-known events from an insider's perspective. He is enthusiastic that Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has expressed interest in translating and publishing it in China.


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