It was the impeccable arrangement of ping pong balls in a window display, and the neatly pinned sales slips on a drying line, that Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Max Frankel noticed during his assignment to cover U.S. President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China for the New York Times. In a panel discussion Tuesday night at Asia Society in New York, Frankel explained how he was struck by the Chinese people's "tremendous work ethic and creativity," and remembered thinking, "Watch out if [the Chinese] are ever turned loose."
Held before a standing-room-only crowd, the talk followed a showing of the new documentary Assignment: China—"The Week That Changed The World" and also featured former Asia Society President Nicholas Platt, a veteran diplomat who accompanied Nixon on the 1972 visit, veteran CNN journalist and Assignment: China director Mike Chinoy, and Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.
Frankel’s observations were prescient, given China's overwhelming poverty at the time. The country had only just opened its doors to diplomatic relations to the U.S. and was teasing the idea of reform. But the efficiency and work ethic of the Chinese made an impression on Platt, as well. Unlike Soviet Russia at the time, he explained, communism was different in China. "I came away with the strong impression that communism is a very thin veneer and that we were dealing with the 'Chinese,'" Platt told the audience.
Even with those signals, it was difficult to predict China's astounding growth and particularly its robust relationship with the U.S. "All four of us, given our experience, have been astonished at what has happened in China after that visit," said Schell.
The panelists debated the importance of Nixon's diplomatic breakthrough but were virtually unanimous in arguing that had it not happened, eventually the U.S. would have established relations with China. "Yes, sooner or later, logic of having a relationship with China would hit critical mass," said Chinoy, one of the first American journalists to report from China, who is currently engaged in making a series of documentaries on the history of American correspondents in China.
The importance of Nixon’s particular visit, however, was clear. "I can't see Deng [Xiaoping] being able to normalize relations and pull off his reforms as quickly as he did without the impetus of the Nixon trip," said Platt.
Video: Watch Mike Chinoy's Assignment: China—"The Week That Changed The World,", an often humorous look at media coverage of Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China. (58 min., 53 sec.)