June 23, 1998
For decades, U.S and China have recognized the importance of maintaining economic and political ties. But the relationship has not always been smooth. After a background report, the NewsHour historians and novelist Bette Bao Lord discuss the relationship between the two countries and President Clinton's upcoming visit to China.
JIM LEHRER: Some perspective on the U.S./China relationship from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist/author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Bette Bao Lord, novelist, chair of Freedom House and member of the Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Asia. And Bette Bao Lord, before anything else, let me ask you about Radio Free Asia, the Chinese government's decision to rescind some visas today for some folks who work for them. What's the story?
BETTE BAO LORD: Well, I think on Sunday they had given them visas, and then they called them up and said we rescind them. This is, you know, about half a week before they're supposed to get on the plane. The problem is that this was a great opportunity for them to show that they have changed. Their attitudes are much more liberal about journalists, but by rescinding this, they have made it seem that the more things change, the more they remain the same, just as the last summit, when Bush was there, they waylaid one person out of a dinner of eight hundred people; they couldn't stand that. And now three journalists on a plane of 375 are going to cover the president's trip, and they've made a fuss about this, and I think it's going to color a summit that they have prepared for and we have prepared for, and both sides want to have be a success.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's that serious a matter that it could really taint this whole operation?
|Bette Bao Lord: "... in these nine days they've choreographed the economic improvements, the pollution improvements, also these improvements in China. But then you're reminded what happened."|
BETTE BAO LORD: I think it has those possibilities, because here they have wanted to give the world through this summit a new picture of China. That's why in these nine days they've choreographed the economic improvements, the pollution improvements, also these improvements in China. But then you're reminded what happened. It can't tolerate three journalists among a pack of 375 journalists.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we'll see what happens, and of course, this comes in this context of the history that we just outlined. Michael, as a matter of history, how important, for instance, was the Nixon trip? He said and Kwame quoted him as saying that it was a week that would change the world. Did it, in fact, change the world?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure did. You know, we've had these 26 years of serious Chinese-American relations that might have been 10 years or five years or actually even zero years had Nixon not gone. And just imagine what it would have been like had some other president been the one to create this opening to China in 1971 and '72, Kennedy would have loved to do that, so would Lyndon Johnson. They were terrified that someone like Richard Nixon would say, you, Mr. President, are going to China to shake the hand of Mao Tse-Tung, who just a few years ago was leading the cultural revolution but killed millions of his own people. That dissuaded Kennedy and Johnson from doing what probably was in the American and self-interest. We're all just lucky that Richard Nixon was enough of a creative global strategist that he could see how important China would be as a military and economic power in the 21st century, that he was able to toss away 20 years of opposing the Communist Chinese regime and essentially do what very few other political leaders in that time could have done.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Doris, nobody else could have done it but Nixon?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think it certainly helped that it was Richard Nixon. I mean, he was really part of that cabal in the 50's where you had Joe McCarthy, you had the Hearst Press, and you had the Henry Luce characters who really were part of a China lobby. And they started arguing within the Congress who lost China. And it became very virulent. People lost their jobs, their careers, and the State Department-it really denuded the State Department of a lot of the experts. So you had all of that background, and for Nixon to be the one, the more you think about it, that trip took place in February of '72. Only three months later comes Watergate. It just makes you so sad at something that Nixon had accomplished. Even Teddy Kennedy said at the end of that trip this was a bridge that would never last in the presidency of Richard Nixon and the communiqué that was produced, one of the most progressive in all of American diplomatic history, I mean, there was a sense of which he knew what he was doing, he knew his past allowed to do it, and he certainly deserves credit. I think now that we realize what a turning point it was, changing two decades of hostility into the beginning of some rapprochement, it seems to loom even larger. It's 25 more years ago.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And he does get the credit, though, does he not, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. And he deserves the credit. This was a great moment.
JIM LEHRER: He's the one who made that decision.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. Whatever else one ever says about Richard Nixon, this was a momentous event and it ended that isolation. Don't forget, we fought a war with Red China, although it wasn't declared so-called Red China, in Korea, when those forces came in. We didn't fight against the Russians in this century, but it was "the Red Chinese," and here was Nixon, as Doris just said, with all that background, you know, of the cowardly Communist and so forth and Red Chinese and traitors within, and he was the one that broke that mold. And it was a breathtaking display of diplomacy and creative movement because we need relations with each other, and that 's how that relationship works out, as Bette says-there's nothing maybe new. It still goes on. The old tensions are still there, but that was a great moment, Jim, no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: But, Bette, when we talk about relationship with China, we always talk about it president to premier, government to government. How would you characterize the relationship between the Chinese people and the American people through all these years?
BETTE BAO LORD: I think it depended on the political prism at that time whether the necessity of seeing them, the Communists, as it were in reformers and then our enemies, when they were the yellow horde coming down from Korea, and then we saw them as the blue ants working, and they had no other wishes, except to work, work, work, work, work, and then you had the red guards were the chaotic hordes again, because we had no relationships, as Doris said. We needed to picture the Chinese people in such an unnatural mode.
|American perceptions of China.|
JIM LEHRER: But did we see them, Doris, as the enemy, the same way we saw the Russians as capable of bombing New York back to the stone age and that sort of thing?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I don't think so, not in quite the same way. I mean, we'd come out of World War II, where China was our partner, and then soon after that this nationalist and Communist battle took place, the civil war, and then right after that, just as we were beginning to worry about China, Truman was even beginning to think about recognizing China at that time, if there hadn't been this whole uprising domestically by the China lobby. But for most American people, I think, there wasn't as much fear of the Chinese as the Russians. When the nuclear bomb, the atom bomb was exploded by the Russians in 1949, that was where the emphasis go. I know as a little kid it was the Russians I dreamed of in my nightmares, not the Chinese.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Michael, some would say, all right, we had the Nixon trip, a major, major event, and then the next major event in their relationship was Tiananmen Square.
|Michael Beschloss: President Clinton has made a 180-degree turn on China.|
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that's the big surprise. I do, and one never would have foreseen, I think, that it would have been so easy for American presidents through the beginning of Bush to conduct a serious relationship with China. It was almost a natural progression. Ford improved things-Jimmy Carter, was we saw in the setup piece, established relationships. Ronald Reagan during the '80 campaign flirted with rolling things back, said we had been unfair to Taiwan and perhaps he would distance the United States from China. There was such an enormous consensus in this country for better relations with Beijing that Reagan had to change his hymn book very quickly. All that changed, of course, in 1989. We all saw that blood and flame that horrible night in Tiananmen Square. And that was one of the great moments when Chinese-American relations really did become a source of partisan debate, because you had the Bush people essentially saying you have to observe self-interest, we may hate what we've seen, but this is going to be a very important power. We'd better not estrange ourselves. And then you see the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, 1991 and 1992, saying, George Bush has been amoral. He has dealt with the butchers of Beijing. This is a horrible moment in American history, and now you see President Clinton just a few years later 180 degrees different from what he said in that moment of campaign rhetoric.
|Will President Clinton's trip be as significant as Nixon's visit?|
JIM LEHRER: So, Haynes, what now is at stake, or what is riding on President Clinton's trip?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, our future, among other things, economically.
JIM LEHRER: What else?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Economically, politically, militarily. You have the nuclear proliferation again on the subcontinent of Asia, the enemies of China, once again, they've talked about this on this program over and over again. Here you have that. You have a billion Chinese. We have the franchise to sell the goods to them. We do pretty well here on the show, and it is-
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Chinese-
HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly-right-but it is there. I mean, and it is I think not too much judgment to say that in the next century it is going to be incredibly important for how we deal with the Chinese, the kind of relationship.
JIM LEHRER: Does President Clinton have that kind of opportunity to make that kind of change?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No, of course not. This is a step, and it's ceremonial, and Bette talked about 335 journalists on this trip. There are going to be 1200 official party members. It's going to be four airplanes and sixty tons of communications gear. He will not make the kind of breakthrough that Nixon did, but this is important, how this comes out, and there's ground to be set.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think-
BETTE BAO LORD: I think there's a longer range importance to this trip. I think the Chinese people, something is different from the days of Mao and days of Nixon. The people-this is the decade of the people. Look what the people did in the Philippines, what the people did in the Soviet Union, what the people did in Indonesia. We cannot neglect to take into consideration an informed Chinese public about the United States. That's why it is so important that we have journalists who know China who speak Chinese, who look Chinese to report on this trip. And it is to China's self-interest, because only when we truly understand each other from people to people, not just government policies that are swayed by both sides' domestic concerns, but for the longer range the peoples of China have to understand America and vice versa.
JIM LEHRER: But you think President Clinton could actually make a major difference in this?
BETTE BAO LORD: Yes, I do, because I think that to the Chinese people they look to America-after all, at Tiananmen Square it was the Statue of Liberty, it was Jefferson that was quoted. It was Lincoln that was quoted. They regard-I know Americans are so cynical they don't think that, you know, this is just talk, but ideas-Lenin said-are much more powerful than guns, and they know that. And that's why the power of the idea of democracy and what America stands for do not underestimate how powerful a weapon that is.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, your thoughts on the Clinton trip.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the one thing President Clinton has going for him that Richard Nixon did not with people to people is that Nixon was not the type to plunge easily into crowds. First of all, it was more choreographed when he was there, but also that wasn't his temperament. It is certainly, as we know, President Clinton's temperament. And to the extent that the Chinese people feel warmly toward us and want to embrace, as Bette was just saying, the ideas that we represent, I would look for a great sense of some sort of warmth and physicality in that relationship, which I think will show up great on television and will garner a certain kind of sense of the future that the people are looking to America, whatever the regime is trying to do.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Doris, Bette, Michael, Haynes, thank you.