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February 28, 2024

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When Nixon visited Shanghai: the week that changed the world

Exactly 52 years ago today, on the morning of February 28, 1972, then-US President Richard Nixon and his team, including his wife Pat and his assistant Henry Kissinger, left Shanghai to head home, having completed what the president called “the week that changed the world.”

And that it did, for it was from right here in Shanghai that China and the United States jointly issued the Shanghai Communiqué, a groundbreaking document that heralded the beginning of the long road toward official relations between the two nations.

‘Ping-pong diplomacy’

It all started in 1971, when American ping-pong athlete Glenn Cowan and his Chinese competitor, Zhuang Zedong, accidentally ended up on the same bus together during a competition in Japan. The pair quickly became friends, and soon the American team was invited to China, becoming the first Americans to officially visit the People’s Republic. This led to a slight thawing of tensions between China and the US, and was soon coined “ping-pong diplomacy.”

That paved the way for then-National Security Adviser Kissinger to make a number of secret visits to Beijing to negotiate with Premier Zhou Enlai about establishing relations and a possible visit by Nixon himself, at the time an absolutely scandalous suggestion.

And then it was official. On July 15, 1971, as the Cold War and Vietnam War raged on, Nixon appeared on live TV, announcing his intention to visit “Communist China” and shocking the world in the process.

It wasn’t until half a year later that he arrived in China for a weeklong visit. From February 21, 1972, he visited Beijing, meeting with then-79-year-old Mao Zedong. The official visit then shifted to Hangzhou, before finishing up 175 kilometers away here in Shanghai, where an important banquet took place on the night of February 27. Its main goal: to announce the Shanghai Communiqué to the world.

Otherwise known as the Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, or 上海公报 in Chinese, this document was the first of a final three communiqués, a hugely significant set of diplomatic documents that mapped out official relations between Beijing and Washington and are still the basis for that relationship today.

Shanghai Reception Office

Shanghai’s Jinjiang Hotel, which hosted Nixon and his team, as well as the final banquet, became a hub of activity in the three months leading up to the visit.

A team of hundreds, in what was referred to as the Shanghai Reception Office, occupied the entire third floor of the hotel from December until the end of February when Nixon flew home, working every single day to ensure everything ran smoothly.

I met with Xia Yongfang, an 83-year-old Shanghai local who was part of the large team working from the hotel. Her role, as part of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Shanghai People’s Government, sounds simple: writing daily briefings for the central government in Beijing.

“My job writing briefings consisted of two parts: reporting on the Chinese side, for example all of the preparation work here in Shanghai, and reporting on the foreign visitors and how everything was going when Nixon finally arrived,” she told me.

In reality, her job was anything but simple, especially when the president arrived in Shanghai and she started having to write multiple reports daily.

“Everything had to be included in the briefings, in order to report to the central government as quickly as possible,” she said.

That included mixing closely with American reporters so that Xia could “grab” the latest news as it happened. Her impression: They were extremely hard workers.

American reporters “told me they had no time for eating or sleeping,” she recalled. “They just worked, worked, worked — I think they are very enterprising.”

But back in 1972, the average Chinese viewed Nixon, a staunch anti-Communist, as China’s No. 1 enemy, leading some of the hotel staff to feel conflicted about hosting him. The Jinjiang Hotel has received hundreds of heads of state, but this visit was different. China and the US were basically enemies, they’d fought each other, and had no relations to speak of for more than two decades.

In fact, this visit was the first time in US history that a sitting president officially visited a country they had no formal relations with.

Staff were asked to follow the motto 不卑不亢,不冷不热,友好接待, which asked them to receive Nixon and his team in a friendly manner, while being neither humble nor arrogant, neither hot nor cold. This confused a lot of staff, with one exclaiming that she can be hot, or she can be cold, but she had no clue how to be neither hot nor cold.

They were later convinced by hotel management that they weren’t serving Nixon, per se, but were instead taking on reception tasks in accordance with Chairman Mao’s instructions. With this explanation, staff members were put at ease.

The final banquet

The main event was a massive banquet held at the grand hall on the hotel grounds where Premier Zhou and Nixon announced the Shanghai Communiqué, which had only just been completed and signed off hours earlier, to the world.

And with that, the world learned about a document which many argue is the single most important breakthrough in Sino-US relations, and it all happened right here in Shanghai.

Two more communiqués would be released, one in 1979 which officially brought about normal relations between the two sides and ended official US relations with Taiwan, while clarifying that Beijing is the sole legal government of all of China; and another in 1982 which aimed to reaffirm the desires of both parties to continue strengthening relations.

On February 28, 1972, the next day, Nixon and his team set off from Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport. As the president flew across the Pacific Ocean, the Shanghai Communiqué was officially published in China’s newspapers.

It was a process that took months of robust, secret meetings, as well as the strenuous work of hundreds and hundreds of others, and finally culminated in the unprecedented official visit to China of President Nixon, leading to normal relations between today’s two largest economies.

Right now we’re experiencing a rough patch, and the relationship has endured some of the biggest challenges it’s faced since 1972. But hopefully things will improve which, just like the Shanghai Communiqué says, is in the interests of the entire world.


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