- - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Nearly fifty years ago, on July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced that secret diplomatic efforts had brought about a historic shift in international relations. The U.S. would seek to resume normal diplomatic relations with China, breaking 25 years of isolation and leading to Nixon’s visit to Mao’s nation the following year.

From our vantage point today, it is hard to overstate the importance of Nixon’s détente with China, then a land of 750 million people that had been terrorized by its own leaders or at war with other countries since its founding as a Communist state in 1949. Few Americans in 1971 might have foreseen the dramatic changes China would undergo after Mao’s reign, to the point where it is in a position to possibly become the world’s most militarily and economically powerful nation within a couple more decades.

As 2021 unfolded, the Biden administration sought to reset expectations with China after Trump’s trade war and China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. As U.S. diplomats made clear in their first meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, the United States would call out what Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called economic and military coercion, as well as the brutal treatment of millions of Uighur Muslims in northwest China.

China’s top diplomats fired back, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and of exercising long-arm jurisdiction to force its way of life on other countries.

“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” said Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party.

So began the Biden administration’s first steps at addressing a range of important issues, from cyber warfare to the status of Taiwan and Hong Kong, to Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.

“The meeting was a policy temperature check,” said Washington Times national security team leader Guy Taylor in the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast.

“The word I would use to describe Trump’s policy [toward China] was confrontation. What is surprising now as we enter this period of hindsight, is how much bipartisan support for that there actually was. With Biden, I would say the word out of the gate is competition. They don’t want to be as confrontational,” Taylor said.

China’s supreme or paramount leader is Xi Jingping, who used his influence to end the term limits that fixed the durations of China’s previous two presidents, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, to two 5-year terms.

Xi, who came to power in 2013, is now expected to rule for life. Xi’s position means China and its ruling Communist Party may be able to maintain a consistent policy toward the U.S. while the latter could find itself resetting every four or eight years, depending on the outcomes of presidential and congressional elections.

China is not monolithic. It’s a complicated place. It’s a massive country with local officials not always doing what the central authorities tell them to do,” said Carla Freeman, a specialist in China studies at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“But [China]… does have specific objectives. Its goal is to improve the lives of the masses of Chinese people. This is a Communist Party, however, that has integrated capitalism into the system. It’s socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Freeman said.

China owes much of its economic development to the market reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiopeng, who succeeded Mao and ruled through the international backlash provoked by his violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“Xi Jingping owes much to Deng Xiopeng and has aligned himself with Deng as a reformer. He has tried to say he’s reforming the economy in new ways. But Xi does take a lot of notes from the Mao era in his populist approach… to the Chinese people,” said Freeman, referring to the ways Xi selectively uses recent Chinese history to appeal to his peoples’ sense of historic greatness.

For instance, Xi ignores the bloodbath at Tiananmen when praising Deng, and focuses on Mao as a state builder in the face of Western imperialism, rather than on the millions of Chinese who died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In this sense, modern-day Chinese citizens are receiving a perverted view of their country’s recent past.

For more observations and insights from The Washington Times’ Guy Taylor’s and historian Carla Freeman, listen to this episode of History As It Happens, a podcast for people who want to think about current events historically.

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