Discuss as:

A Nixon returns to China, retracing steps of 1972 visit

President Richard Nixon's grandson, Christopher Cox Nixon, recently visited a much-changed China, more than 30 years after his grandfather's historic trip changed U.S.-Chinese relations forever.

BEIJING -- Christopher Cox Nixon began retracing the steps of his grandfather's historic 1972 visit to China by walking across Tiananmen Square with an entourage that included several former Nixon aides.

"The stark contrast between then and now," marveled Jack Brennan, who had accompanied President Richard Nixon to China as his Marine Corp aide. "The colors, and nobody smiled back then."

As if on cue, a young Chinese woman in a bright dress, big white-rimmed sunglasses and a smile that seemed as broad as the Tiananmen Gate, bounded forward requesting a photograph. Although not with Brennan, but with the young Nixon's glamorous wife, Andrea Catsimatidis, clad in a striking red dress.

Catsimatidis, daughter of supermarket billionaire John Catsimatidis -- a candidate for mayor of New York -- duly obliged, as she would several more times as the group strolled on through the Forbidden City.

It is likely that none of the Chinese fans had a clue who she was -- and they may never have heard of either of the Nixons. But it seemed a cool thing to do, uploading the photo from a smartphone to one of the many social networking sites patronized by young Chinese.

Yes, this country has changed.

Andy Wong / AP

In this combo photo, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat Nixon have light moments at a huge stone elephant, left, on Feb. 24, 1972; while at right, Nixon's grandson Christopher Cox and his wife Andrea Catsimatidisat visit the same spot at the Ming Tomb, north of Beijing, onĀ  May 4, 2013.

President Nixon called his historic 1972 visit "the week that changed the world," ending 25 years of a diplomatic freeze between the two countries. The young Nixon’s visit marked the centenary of his grandfather's birth.

"What an incredible change from 40 years ago," said the young Nixon, a 34-year-old investment banker with political ambitions of his own. "Just look at the personal freedoms, not political freedoms, but personal freedoms -- how people dress, how people interact with each other."

The 1972 trip is credited with opening China to the world. It was also an important Cold War play, driving a deeper wedge between China and the Soviet Union. Nixon was fiercely anti-communist, and the term "Nixon going to China" became a catchphrase for an unexpected action by a politician.

"We should never keep a billion of the world's most able and hard-working people in isolation," said his grandson. "I think that he [President Nixon] would have expected to see the Chinese people so prosperous and industrious."

The anniversary trip was designed to stress the positives of both the Nixon administration and the Chinese Communist Party, which gave the group red-carpet treatment as they traveled last week to Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

One highlight was a banquet at the Great Hall of the People, hosted by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign policy official, and designed to mirror a banquet thrown for President Nixon.

A big screen at the front of the room described the 1972 summit as the "most important event in the history of international diplomacy in the 20th century."

Andy Wong / AP

Christopher Cox, grandson of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, second from right, and his wife Andrea Catsimatidis, third from right, pose with Chinese tourists as they tour the Great Wall of China at Badaling, north of Beijing, on May 4. A delegation led by Cox is here to commemorate Nixon's centennial by retracing his 1972 historical visit to China.

Among the Chinese dignitaries was Tang Wensheng, who had been interpreter for Chairman Mao Zedong back then. Mao had suffered a stroke a few days before Nixon arrived, and she said the Chinese side was worried about whether Mao would be well enough. But the ailing Mao was able to meet Nixon.

Robert McFarlane, former national security adviser to President Nixon, said the summit set the scene for extensive sharing of privileged information.

"We shared the most sensitive intelligence about the Soviet Union with China, intelligence we didn't even share with our allies," he said.

He said this was designed as a mark of sincerity, but it also served Washington's purpose of further poisoning relations between the two communist giants.

Back then, of course, relations between China and the U.S. were fairly simple -- there weren't any.

Today China is a much more open, yet complicated, place. Relations can be tense and difficult. The two are economic and political rivals, and U.S. officials are much more regular visitors as they grapple with a host of issues from cyberspying to North Korea. 

"The problems haven't become any easier," McFarlane said. "Issues like cybersecurity, regional territorial disagreements between China and her neighbors and certainly terrorism -- all of these look daunting."

As the toasts got underway, there was much talk at the banquet of reviving the spirit of 1972.

"It’s important for the two countries to talk to each other frankly," McFarlane said.

Related links: 

Chairman Mao's granddaugher makes China's rich list 

China labels US the 'real hacking empire' after Pentagon report 

'Charlie Two Shoes': A story of wartime loyalty and friendship