Interview: 'It began with a secret trip by Kissinger and myself'

Former Ambassador Winston Lord on the 1972 Nixon-Mao meeting, Xi Jinping, and the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
By Rita Cheng
2022.02.22
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Interview: 'It began with a secret trip by Kissinger and myself' This file photo taken on February 24, 1972 shows US President Richard Nixon (C) and US Secretary of State William Rogers (R) visiting the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing, during their historic visit to visit in China.
AFP

Winston Lord, the U.S. ambassador to China from 1985–1989, played an important early role in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China in the early 1970s. As a member of the planning staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Lord accompanying the famed statesman on his secret trip to Beijing in 1971 and was he part of the U.S. delegation during President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China the following year. Lord, 84, spoke to Rita Cheng of RFA's Mandarin Service on the 50th anniversary of Nixon's Feb. 21-28, 1972 visit to China. Following are excerpts of the interview:

RFA: What was your involvement in the reestablishment of Sino-U.S. diplomatic ties?

Lord: I was very fortunate to be at the very center, along with President Nixon and Dr. [Henry] Kissinger, of the opening to China in the 1970s.

It began with a secret trip by Kissinger and myself and to others, in July '71, to see whether a presidential trip was possible. We then had another, public, trip. And then we went back to China with the president. I was assigned that responsibility of assembling all the briefing books for President Nixon. We gathered information from all the government agencies, and always [made] Kissinger a special assessment, not only to work on China, but on on other key issues that were related, namely, the Soviet Union.

So it was very exciting. I was returning to the land of the native land of my wife and ... uniting the Chinese and American people. So I was very fortunate, and it was very dramatic, both in personal and in professional diplomatic terms.

When [then Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai told President Nixon shortly after he arrived on Feb. 21 1972, that Chairman Mao wanted to meet Nixon, Nixon chose Kissinger ... and because of my background on this and other issues, [he] asked me to go along, both from my perspective, and to be a good note taker so that he could focus on the meeting.

Interestingly enough, at the end of the meeting, President Nixon asked Zhou Enlai, to have the Chinese keep my presence at the meeting secret. They asked them to cut me out of all photographs, and a communique, because they didn't want to embarrass the absent Secretary of State any further, who was not at the meeting. For the third person there to be a young person ... like myself was further humiliation. So the whole world did not know I was there.

A year later when we went back to China ... Zhou Enlai gave me a photograph of the meeting with me included to prove I had indeed attended this historic event ... This was one of the most exciting episodes in my life.

With the two countries cutting off relations in 1949, no American official had gone to China for 22 years. When Kissinger went [he went] on a Pakistani airplane ... in July 1971. We were going to be the first American officials into China after 22 years. But I was in the front of the plane.

Dr. Kissinger was in the back of the plane so I claim to be the first American. As we went into Chinese territory on the airplane, I was ahead of Dr. Kissinger. And so I said that I was the first one there. And he agrees ... he admits in his memoir that I beat him by 1,000,000th of a second.

When we went in July '71, it was to prepare for the presidential trip. And we knew we would be seeing Zhou Enlai, but that it was not appropriate to meet with the chairman: that would be reserved for the President's trip.

This file photo taken Feb. 22, 1972 shows China's Chairman Mao Zedong shaking hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon after their meeting in Beijing during the U.S. leader's official visit to China.  Credit: AFP
This file photo taken Feb. 22, 1972 shows China's Chairman Mao Zedong shaking hands with U.S. President Richard Nixon after their meeting in Beijing during the U.S. leader's official visit to China. Credit: AFP
RFA: Do you see any similarities between Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping?

Lord: There are some similarities and some differences between Chairman Mao and President Xi. They are alike in that they both promote a cult of personality; of worshiping the leader. And they both genuinely believe in communism as an ideology, as opposed to, for example, Deng Xiaoping, who was more pragmatic and was not so ideological. So those are the similarities. But there are some differences. For example, Xi puts a high premium on stability in the country, where Mao liked chaos ... the Cultural Revolution ... he felt that every now and then he had to shake up the bureaucracy to keep the revolutionary spirit [alive].

Another difference is that ... Xi's directing every aspect of economic, political and foreign policy, whereas Mao
delegated this pretty much to Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders.

I happen to believe that Mr. Xi is ... the main cause for the recent downturn in our relationship. He is increasingly repressive at home, and his policies are increasingly aggressive abroad, and also interfering in other countries, not just America, but many others like Australia and other countries where he exerted a great deal of pressure.

Although I would never claim that the current problems are all China's fault, I do think the downtown in our relationship ... is primarily because of China's policies, particularly under Xi.

So whereas China clearly is doing some things right. I think it's beginning to lose friends and potential influence by much of its foreign policy and its wolf warrior diplomacy.

I do think China has been aggressive. I mean, for it to claim 90 percent of the South China Sea, or to pressure India or Taiwan or to crack down on the Uyghurs. And what it's done to Hong Kong. All this suggests zealous overreaction to security concerns. They have some legitimate security concerns, but it seems to me they have been overly aggressive in pursuing them. Having said that, unlike the Soviet Union, they are not stationing troops in other countries.

And on the whole, unlike the Soviets, they haven't tried to overthrow governments that they don't like ... but on balance, there's no question that China seeks regional and global influence.

RFA: What do you think China's attitude to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be?

Lord: China has to feel ambivalent about what Russia is doing on the Ukraine issue. Even in the most recent statement during the Olympics between Putin and Xi, China did not endorse Russia going into Ukraine. And it must be ambivalent about it because Russia invaded China in 1969. And they've had border disputes. For example, they'd never recognize the Russian takeover of Crimea, nor ... what Russia has done in Kazakhstan.

There's no question that the Chinese are watching the Western response to Russian pressures on Ukraine. And to the extent that if we're ... not unified, and we're weak in response, that will make them think even less of the credible posture of the U.S. Having said that, no matter what happens in Ukraine, it will not affect basic Chinese calculations on Taiwan.

I think there is no chance in the near future, that China will invade Taiwan, no matter what happens in Ukraine. It's too risky. If he fails, Mr. Xi would be driven out of office. [Then there are the] tremendous potential military consequences if the U.S. gets involved.

Edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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