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UPDATED: February 19, 2012 NO. 8 FEBRUARY 23, 2012
Wisdom of the Old Generation
By Yu Lintao

BREAKING THE ICE: Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai welcomes U.S. President Richard Nixon to Beijing on February 21, 1972 (XINHUA)

Forty years ago this month, U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China ended more than two decades of estrangement between the two countries. At the conclusion of this icebreaking trip, the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué was issued in Shanghai on February 28, 1972. The Shanghai Communiqué, which opened the door to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, remains one of the cornerstones of Sino-U.S. ties.

In a recent interview with Beijing Review reporters Ding Zhitao and Yu Lintao, former Chinese diplomats Ding Yuanhong and Zhao Jihua recalled the negotiation process of the Shanghai Communiqué and elaborated on the document's enduring significance. Excerpts follow:

Ding Yuanhong served in a number of posts with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, including China's ambassador to the EU. He was head of the Foreign Ministry's U.S. affairs office when U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 (WEI YAO)

Zhao Jihua was a translator with China's Foreign Ministry at the time of Nixon's visit. He was chief representative of China in the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group during talks over Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 (WEI YAO)

Beijing Review: You witnessed the historic visit of Nixon and the hard negotiation process of the Shanghai Communiqué. Could you recall the international background before the release of the communiqué?

Ding: The Shanghai Communiqué was issued during Nixon's visit to China. It was an important achievement after bilateral relations were frozen for more than 20 years. After the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the United States went on to support the Kuomintang authorities in Taiwan and regarded the PRC as a foe. It also placed an embargo on trade and denied the PRC's sovereignty over Taiwan, which caused long-time separation between China's mainland and Taiwan.

In the late 1960s, the international situation underwent great changes. On the one hand, competition for world hegemony became more and more intense between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the meantime, the Viet Nam War caused headaches for Washington policymakers. On the other hand, Sino-Soviet relations took a turn for the worse, from ideological divergence to border clashes. Against this backdrop, both Beijing and Washington had the will to improve bilateral ties.

What were the main barricades and disputes during the negotiations of the Shanghai Communiqué? And how was the ice broken?

Zhao: Henry Kissinger visited China in July 1971 as Nixon's special envoy and announced the U.S. president would visit China the next year. The U.S. side insisted that the visit should come with certain achievements. Otherwise, the allies of the United States as well as Nixon's political rivals would criticize the visit as Nixon's pilgrimage to the Middle Kingdom. At that time, without diplomatic relations between the two countries, Nixon's trip to Beijing as U.S. president was itself a kind of political success of China. But China didn't get a draft of what kind of achievements the two countries might get during Nixon's visit. During Kissinger's second visit to Beijing in October 1971, the U.S. side was fully prepared. Kissinger brought a draft for a joint communiqué. However, China could not agree on the articles of the draft and claimed that it could not be used as the basis for negotiations.

Ding: The U.S. draft was just a pile of rhetoric that described the agreements of the two sides. It aimed to show Nixon's visit to China was successful. The draft didn't mention the divergence of the two sides at all. Premier Zhou Enlai thought the draft was not acceptable. Zhou said China and the United States had been isolated from each other for more than 20 years and they held many conflicting positions. If they covered up their differences, the two countries would sow seeds of future trouble, he said.

Zhao: Therefore, we drafted a new solution, which proposed an unconventional format for the communiqué. It was impossible that the two could totally agree with each other. The solution therefore required the two sides to basically agree to disagree, each stating its views in separate paragraphs. At the beginning, Kissinger was astonished at the proposal and thought it unacceptable. To break the deadlock, Premier Zhou explained to Kissinger patiently that it was good for both sides to adopt this format. Listing our differences shows both China and the United States hadn't changed on certain positions. It was helpful for Washington to soothe the feelings of its allies and political rivals. It also showed the world that China would not abandon its principles to improve relations with the United States. What's more, the common points sought from huge differences are more valuable and reliable. Kissinger agreed at last.

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