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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 15:15 GMT
Flashback: Nixon in China
Nixon strolls across bridge in Hangchow. Zhou Enlai is on the left
Nixon and Zhou Enlai (left) take a historic "first step"
US President George W Bush's arrival in China comes 30 years to the day since his predecessor, Richard Nixon, flew into Beijing.

Nixon's ground-breaking visit was hailed as a diplomatic triumph as relations between the two countries thawed. He said it "changed the world". BBC News Online's Simon Fraser looks back.

As we look at this wall - we do not want any walls of any kind between peoples

Richard Nixon
Nixon's historic trip came after years of hostility and mistrust between Washington and the People's Republic.

He and his advisers calculated that a falling-out between China and the USSR offered a unique chance to isolate Moscow during the Cold War.

To foster contacts an American table-tennis team had been dispatched to China a year earlier, setting in train what famously came to be known as ping-pong diplomacy.

The Nixons on the Great Wall
Nixon: Bring down barriers between peoples
Henry Kissinger, a national security official who would become secretary of state, furthered the thaw with a secret visit to Beijing a few months later.

Nixon's trip opened the way for cultural, scientific and trade exchanges between the two countries, which led in turn to eventual diplomatic recognition.

Talks blackout

The president, his wife and entourage arrived in Beijing just before lunch on 21 February 1972, after a brief stopover in Shanghai.

Meetings with Chairman Mao and senior officials took place that afternoon, before an evening banquet.

It's the biggest stake-out in history

Richard Salant,
then CBS president
Talks with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai would be held on every day of the week-long visit.

Negotiations, however, progressed amid a news black-out. The general Chinese line was that the talks were "not going badly".

But there was no guarantee of success. The White House spokesman refused to say whether or not a communique would be issued before the president flew home.

However, the Shanghai Communique was in the end signed, endorsing a "one China policy" that continues to this day.

Media bonanza

The visit was a television spectacular, in what was a crucial election year for Nixon.

Three Hercules aircraft laden with equipment, and personnel belonging the US networks were dispatched to record the president's first step onto Chinese soil.

President and Mrs Nixon view a stone elephant during their visit to the Ming Tombs
The Nixons at the Ming tombs
"It's the biggest stake-out in history," Richard Salant, the then-president of CBS, told the Guardian's Washington correspondent.

His concern was that vast sums of money spent relaying images via satellite would be wasted if the pictures were only of handshakes and officials getting in and out of cars.

He needn't have worried. There was an abundance of photo opportunities.

While her husband worked, Pat Nixon carried out a gruelling schedule of official engagements, taking in hospitals, sporting events, the zoo and the imperial Summer Palace, among a host of other tourist attractions.

'Great' wall

Together, America's First Couple were taken with their entourage to the tombs of the Ming emperors and the Forbidden City.

The Sino-US relationship of today has gone out of its infantile period and into the period of maturity

People's Daily
Perhaps most famously, they stood on the Badaling portion of the Great Wall, which the president called simply "great".

"As we look at this wall - we do not want any walls of any kind between peoples," he remarked imaginatively to journalists.

As for what the Chinese laid on, much of it appeared stage-managed, reports said.

"For the most part, the Chinese being displayed to the presidential party and the foreign press have apparently been selected and programmed to behave according to a scenario prepared in advance," said the Guardian at the time.

"At the athletic exhibition, for instance, sections of the crowd applauded on cue."

'First step'

But the president was unequivocal that a new chapter was at hand.

Chairman Mao shakes hands with Richard Nixon 21 Feb 1972
Mao exchanged historic handshake with Nixon
"It would be very valuable and worthwhile for Americans and, for that matter, people in all countries, to be able to visit China," he said.

That, of course, is exactly what has happened as China has opened up to the world in the years since.

Without the "first step" taken by Nixon, Mao and Zhou in 1972, there would be no China-US relations today, an editorial in the People's Daily said ahead of the Bush visit.

"The Sino-US relationship of today has gone out of its infantile period and into the period of maturity," the paper said.

More importantly, it pointed out, neither the advent of McDonald's and Coca-Cola in China, nor annual trade worth $80bn would have been possible had it not been for events three decades ago.

BBC Panorama, 1972
US President Nixon arrives at Beijing airport
US President Richard Nixon:
"The world listens...the world see what we will do"
See also:

19 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Kissinger recalls ping-pong diplomacy
10 Jan 99 | Americas
Kissinger played China overtures
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