Q and A

When Nixon and the US press went to China

April 19, 2022
AP Photo

Richard Nixon’s visit to China fifty years ago would reshape the global geopolitical map, alter the balance of power in the Cold War, and open the door to a new relationship between the People’s Republic and the United States. It was also a milestone in the history of journalism: For the first time in decades, the Chinese government accepted dozens of US journalists into the country, and it allowed the most dramatic events—Nixon’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s welcome banquet, Nixon’s visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City—to be televised live. 

The coverage was arguably almost as important as the details of the diplomacy. It transformed American and international perceptions of China, generated the public support Nixon needed to change US policy, and laid the groundwork for the Chinese government’s gradual moves to open the country to greater coverage by American media. But while the outlines of the Nixon trip are familiar, the story of how that momentous event was covered is much less well-known. The following details, excerpted from a forthcoming oral history of American journalists in China, offer behind-the-scenes glimpses at one of the biggest news stories of the twentieth century, from the reporters and handlers who were involved.


President Richard Nixon with the press. Credit: Richard Nixon Library and Museum



Initially, Beijing was less than enthusiastic about allowing a large American press contingent. 



“For the President and Kissinger, they wanted this dramatic event to be covered as widely as possible. The Chinese, of course, had been incredibly paranoiac and secretive and controlling the press completely. So you had these two cultural and political giants clashing.”


After difficult negotiations conducted primarily by Kissinger, Beijing agreed to issue visas for 87 US journalists and several dozen technicians. In newsrooms across America, there was intense jockeying among reporters desperate to go. 



“We’re talking about people who would very happily push their own mothers under the wheels of a plane to get on the trip.”


For his part, Nixon vowed to exclude reporters from the newspapers he most disliked—the New York Times and the Washington Post.



“Nixon had said, ‘Nobody from the Times.’ Somebody on his staff, whether Kissinger or other saner heads, said, ‘You can’t do that. This is THE international newspaper,’ et cetera. Somehow they prevailed, and he reluctantly allowed one seat for China.”


Apart from the White House pool reporters on Air Force One, the press corps traveled on two specially chartered planes. 



“From the minute we passed over the coast everybody was gawking out of the windows of the plane for their first look at China. And of course, to say these are well-seasoned travelers is an understatement. They were like kids.”



“It was a little of the feeling we were leaving earth and going deep into the cosmos of some distant planet.”



“I knew nothing about China. Nobody had any idea what it was going to be like. It really was like going on the moon. What are we going to see? We had no idea what to expect.”


Indeed, most of the reporters knew little of China. Their perceptions had been shaped by nearly a quarter century of isolation and hostility.


Dan Rather arrives in China. Credit: Ed Fouhy



As Air Force One descended toward Beijing, Nixon and his staff were well aware of how crucial the first TV images would be in setting the tone for the entire trip.



“It was very clear upon arrival that we would have the President and Mrs. Nixon down the stairs, and that the picture with Zhou Enlai would be an incredibly important picture. That was the establishing shot in virtually every newspaper the next morning.” 


Waiting at Beijing airport, the reporters, too, wondered about the moment.



“I had in mind John Foster Dulles’s refusal in the 1954 Vietnam Conference to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand. So I was straining to see Nixon shaking Zhou’s hand at the airport, because I was going to make a point of it in my story.”


The arrival was broadcast live by all the American networks. But apart from Zhou and a guard of honor, the welcome was decidedly low-key. Nixon was taken to the Diaoyutai state guest house. The official schedule called for a rest, followed by a formal meeting and then a banquet with Zhou Enlai.



“An hour after we got to the guest house, to our surprise, Zhou Enlai came and said to Kissinger, ‘The Chairman would like to see the President right away.’”


The meeting with Mao lasted an hour, with the two leaders talking mostly in generalities. Yet the mere fact it took place meant Mao had given his blessing to a new relationship with the US.


However, no American journalists were allowed to cover the meeting. The reporters were furious.



“It was announced the President had gone to see Chairman Mao—it was, ‘Well, what press is with him? There’s no press with him?’ I would say the discontent and disappointment in the press corps, including myself, was very high.”


For Nixon, it didn’t matter. He had the image he wanted—the first meeting with Mao by an American leader. This was followed by a banquet, another set-piece event designed for American TV. In his opening toast in Beijing, Nixon boasted, “More people are seeing and hearing what we say here than on any other occasion in the whole history of the world.”



“What Nixon really wanted was a television extravaganza. He didn’t want print reporters. He didn’t care about print reporters. He cared about television.”


TV crews during Nixon’s visit to the Great Wall of China. Credit: Ed Fouhy



With the real business of the summit—negotiations on a communiqué to underpin a new US-China relationship—taking place behind closed doors, the reporters were offered a carefully controlled glimpse of Chinese society.



“We all recognized how heavily we were being manipulated, but none of us could do anything about it.” 



“We would each be given a menu of events first thing in the morning. You can pick, quite literally, one from Column A and one from Column B. You can go to the Chinese [North] Korean People’s Friendship Commune. Or you could go to such-and-such hospital.”



“We went where the Chinese told us to go. These were the things that didn’t have to do with politics but had to do with the way a society lives that were brand new to us.”


All the reporters accompanying Nixon were assigned Chinese government minders. They served as translators and guides, but were also there to keep the press in line.



“The minders were all very uptight. Their instructions were: Don’t let them go anywhere they are not supposed to go.”


As Nixon’s visit progressed, the reporters became increasingly frustrated at their inability to get beyond staged events.



“A few of us badgered the hell out of our minders, that we were getting sick and tired of these laid-on events, and was there no chance at all to engage some real people?”


Some journalists were taken to Peking University.



“We met Zhou Peiyuan, the Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee. He was a physicist who had gotten his degree at the University of Chicago. This was an intelligent, accomplished man, and he sat there and described how thanks to the thoughts of Chairman Mao they had reorganized the university and let workers and peasants in. It was just all nonsense. You just felt sorry for him because you know he couldn’t believe a word he said but he was a captive.”  


Some reporters decided to elude their minders and strike out on their own.



“I managed to shake the minders and got around the block and into a small shop. The camera crew joined me. The minders came in just as we were starting to videotape. The minders made it very clear that we were not supposed to be there, we had to get back to the hotel.”



In their private meetings, Nixon and Kissinger had reached agreement with the Chinese on a communiqué. The sticking point had been Taiwan, with which Washington still maintained formal diplomatic relations and a security treaty. The two sides found a formula to acknowledge Beijing’s claim to the island while stressing the US’s commitment to resolving the issue peacefully. But the text of the communiqué was not shared with Secretary of State William Rogers.



“I thought that there was difficulty in drafting the Shanghai Communiqué between the American delegation and the Chinese. What I didn’t realize is that the problem was within the American delegation.”


The issue was that the Chinese would not accept any reference to the US-Taiwan Defense Treaty, so the draft communiqué had no mention of it. When the problem was brought to Nixon’s attention, he was furious. He risked the anger of conservative supporters at home if it appeared he was abandoning US security commitments to Taiwan. And there was the danger of bad publicity if the story leaked to the press. 



“There was significant concern, and there was a lot of tension. There was tension with the President. There was tension with the staff. There was tension in terms of how it was going to be interpreted back home among conservatives. It was a very, very delicate several hours.”


Nixon and Kissinger insisted on a return to the negotiating table, but the Chinese would not budge. Eventually, Kissinger and Zhou agreed to simply eliminate references to US security commitments anywhere in Asia. 

The Shanghai Communiqué was unveiled on February 27. Conservative critics were still bitterly opposed. But that was a minority view.

Nixon correctly calculated that for most Americans, sharing in the pomp, pageantry, and excitement conveyed by the television coverage was much more important than the details of the communiqué.



“Nixon knew he was going to get this political windfall beyond his greatest wishes. Whether they had a communiqué at the end of the talks was important for the diplomats and foreign affairs reporters, but for the generalists like me, he had already hit the home run.”



“China had suddenly come alive [for American audiences], and all the rest is just commentary.”



“The Nixon trip to China was without any doubt the most important presidential trip ever. With the exception of a president going to Mars, nobody is going to be able to do a trip like that again.”

Mike Chinoy is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. He previously spent 24 years as a CNN foreign correspondent, serving as the network’s first Beijing Bureau Chief and as Senior Asia Correspondent. He has received Emmy, Peabody, and Dupont awards for his journalism, and is the author of five books. This article is excerpted from Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in China, to be published by Columbia University Press in early 2023.