Anniversaries come and go, so much so that it’s hard to keep up with them all. But it does speak volumes about how much the world has changed that, 35 years after President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, how few people and media outlets commemorated the event last month.
The event was so significant that it coined a permanent new phrase in the English lexicon: “Like Nixon going to China.” As National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep put it, the phrase means “a politician is so tough on his opponents, that he has the credibility to do something unexpected.” Like a president known as an anti-communist doing the unthinkable and going to communist China. No liberal Democrat could have gotten away with it without having faced accusations that he was soft on communism.
Newsman Ted Koppel, now a National Public Radio analyst, went along on the trip. It was a bleak time, a bleak place. “People spoke in shades of gray,” he recalled in his radio commentary Feb. 22. “Nobody dared admit to a personal goal or aspiration. It was all about serving the country. If a nation needed a young man or woman to shovel pig manure in Manchuria, then that, by golly, was what he or she wanted — no, no, no — yearned to do.”
China, he said, “was in the final convulsive stages of the cultural revolution – Mao Zedong’s final great contribution to misery and mass murder.”
China still isn’t a free land, in terms of political and religious freedom. But it has a booming market economy that has created freedoms and voluntary, international relationships that the Chinese people couldn’t have dreamed of 35 years ago. The drab grayness of Beijing has given way to a vibrant, colorful city with high-rises and enterprises booming on every corner. As Koppel noted, not many Chinese people would volunteer to shovel pig manure any more, but they might if “there’s tons of money at the bottom of the pit.”
We see some lessons. Perhaps the drab, authoritarian societies dominated by Islamic fundamentalism, such as Iran, could face a similar change in a similarly short amount of time. Of course, change will mostly have to come from within those societies.