Nicholas Platt: A 'Worm’s Eye View' of China’s Past, Present, and Future

Veteran diplomat looks back on US-China breakthrough of 40 years ago

Former Asia Society President Nicholas Platt speaks on a panel discussion at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center pre-opening gala dinner on Feb. 8, 2012.  (Asia Society Hong Kong)

HONG KONG, February 21, 2012 — Nicholas Platt, author of China Boys, former U.S. Ambassador, and President Emeritus, Asia Society, joined Asia Society Hong Kong Center for a discussion on China: Then and Now.

Amazingly, the date of the program coincided (almost to the minute) with the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking diplomatic visit to China in 1972, which signaled a softening of the relations between the two nations. At age 36, Platt was the youngest member of Nixon's accompanying team. So who better to provide the audience with what Platt referred to as a "worm's-eye view" of those historic proceedings?

Platt shared with the audience the grainy and silent yet poignant video footage he had recorded on his visit. Some of the moments were monumental, such as the President’s emergence at Beijing Airport, the American flag flying high above, and the iconic first handshake between Nixon and Zhou Enlai outside the plane.

There were also many telegenic events designed to open America's eyes to China's history, such as the delegation's trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. But much of the footage showed quiet, everyday moments in contemporary Chinese life: a man performing calisthenics, a woman brushing her teeth, a boy urinating alongside a road, his grandmother tugging him along on bound feet, a bird in a treetop. These moments held the deepest interest to this group of American diplomats who were traversing space and culture to experience a new reality.

The Ambassador mentioned that the Chinese government forbade ordinary citizens from speaking to the American delegation, but a few individuals on bicycles successfully rode up to steal a few words, unwatched. When George H.W. Bush asked Platt what he should be sure to do on his visit to China the following year, he replied, "Buy a bike."

Throughout his presentation, Platt repeatedly stressed the importance of person-to-person diplomacy, and the foreign relations that can be cemented between two ordinary individuals through sports and culture. Nixon's watershed visit heralded an era when Chinese and Americans could satisfy their mutual curiosity, find common ground, and begin interacting in a natural way.

Platt acknowledged that even today, China and America must bridge vast cultural differences to understand and appreciate one another. "We have no alternative but to work out these differences together. We are so entwined that neither one can hurt the other without hurting himself all the more. We're in a clinch. And that's not a bad place to be."

Reported by Maddie Gressel

Watch the complete program (46 min., 52 sec.):