On February 21st, 1972 President Richard Nixon arrived in China for a historic eight-day trip. He was taking a risky gamble. But in Nixon’s mind, it was a gamble worth taking. Nixon wrote the following, expressing his doubt:
The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions.
Nixon had three goals. First, opening up China would give the United States more flexibility on the world scene. Secondly, it would provide the U.S. more leverage against the Soviet Union and get their attention. Finally, he hoped it would help in resolving the Vietnam War and provide for a way to pull out and save face.
Ultimately, President Richard Nixon didn’t get his wish on Vietnam. China continued to provide arms, materials, and fighters to the North Vietnamese leading America to a humiliating retreat. He fared much better though on his goal of gaining leverage against the Soviets. The Soviets were deterred enough that they didn’t attack China. But almost fifty years later one has to ask if the risky gamble Nixon took has made the China situation worse? Has China changed its imperial ambitions? Was the price America and the world has paid worth the gamble?
As early as 1978, even Nixon was beginning to have his own doubts about whether the risky gamble would prove to be a bad deal. In his memoirs, Nixon recorded the following:
We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise, we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.
Nixon was prescient. China has grown in strength and has become a formidable enemy. With latter American administrations appeasing Red China seeking economic gain through free trade, the Chinese have taken full advantage of the Sino-American relationship.
America has gone from goods being vastly “Made In America” to vastly “Made In China”. Corporations saw the population of a billion people in China as a golden opportunity for a vast new marketplace and despite the heavy restrictions on corporate businesses by the CCP felt the positives outweighed the negatives. Liberal estimates are 3.7 million American jobs have been lost to China just since 2001. Whether that estimate is accurate or not it is clear that China has held the upper hand in trade and it has been nearly a one-way street that benefits them.
In recent years China has become increasingly more aggressive as well. When Xi Jinping succeeded in becoming the CCP General Secretary and President of the People’s Republic of China in 2012 he made a hard push back to authoritarian rule. He sees himself as continuing in the footsteps of Mao Zedong. Xi’s aggressive foreign policy approach has included saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait, months of Hong Kong riots as the CCP rescinded the social contract, the militarization of the South China Sea, and ongoing confrontations with the US Navy ships and aircraft in international waters.
Most recently, America experienced the viciousness of the deadly COVID-19 virus resulting from the failure by China to quickly report and contain the Wuhan Virus. The spread has become a pandemic on par with the worst in global history. Speculation has gained ground that the pandemic was by design and not an accident stemming from scientific incompetence.
The question is whether Nixon’s trip to China changed China for the better? One can argue it has ultimately made China worse and more dangerous. there remains no debate that Nixon’s opening of China changed American foreign policy forever, and not without internal consequences to CCP’s grip on the Chinese people.
In 1989, Chinese students protested for change with the images of tankman and the Goddess of Liberty etched in people through the television screen. That led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre as the CCP brutally killed the protesters and ended any further dissent. That was thirty years ago and there hasn’t been any further outburst for change by the Chinese people that we are aware of.
China has a long history of oppressive imperial rule. The thought of the intellectual foreign policy elites in the West was you can tame China and bring them to more freedom and liberty through opening them up to free-trade. History shows us regime change is never easy or without more dangerous prospects. More often than not whoever fills the vacuum of an overthrown regime tends to be worse than the previous dictatorship.
Ultimately, America and the world cannot elicit or encourage permanent transformative change in China. That responsibility falls on the Chinese people who will have to decide at some point in time if they truly have the courage and determination to topple their Communist rulers and embark on a new government-built on freedom and liberty. The Hong Kong freedom movement is the most powerful test of China’s resolve.
Before his death in 1994, Nixon was interviewed and confessed real fears about China’s direction. “We may have created a Frankenstein [monster].” Nixon’s toast of “the week that changed the world” may have indeed changed it for the worst.