Chinese retain positive image of Nixon's legacy
Ironically, no foreign leader is more popular in Communist China than President Richard Nixon, a rabid anti-Communist. Josef Stalin should surpass Nixon in this aspect. It is no secret, however, that Stalin did not get along with the Chinese Communist leaders. Since Stalin never visited China, Chinese people were in awe of him, but did not really like him. In contrast, Nixon enjoys popularity among the Chinese, leaders and masses alike.
On New Year's Eve, 1976, the dying Mao Zedong told Nixon's daughter Julie Eisenhower and her husband that he was looking forward to meeting Nixon. On February 27, Nixon met Mao for the last time. Deng Xiaoping, another paramount leader, invited Nixon to a welcoming party held by President Carter in his honor when he visited the United States in late January, 1979. This was the first time Nixon returned to the White House after the Watergate scandal. Nixon's six trips to China also endeared him to the Chinese people. Here a caveat is necessary. The word "Chinese" in this article does not refer to each and every Chinese person. In fact, many Chinese do not know who Nixon is. Even those who know do not know much about the man. But for the sake of convenience, I use the word Chinese.
When people mention Nixon, three things cross their minds: his historic trip to China, the Watergate scandal and his strong personality. Chinese views of Nixon are based on the same incidents, but the Chinese have their own opinions about them. Simply speaking, the Chinese were happy with Nixon's trip to China, and symnpathize with Nixon in regards to the Watergate scandal, and respect his strong personality.
While America approved of Nixon's trip to China, the Chinese loved it. Neither an incumbent American president nor a foreign leader of the world's most powerful country had ever visited China before. What mesmerized the Chinese was Nixon's claim that he came to China in American interests. The chinese read different meanings into this common sense. For the Chinese, the claim implied Nixon's respect of China as a great power. Since the opium wars in 1840, China has been a victim to foreign imperialism. The erstwhile superior complex of the Chinese has been replaced by the inferior complex. After the communists took over China in 1949, the United States led the capitalist camp in isolating the country. What is worse, in the early 1970's, China was surrounded by three hostile neighbors: the Soviet Union, Japan and India. Without understanding this hisotrical background and China's geopolitical situation at that time, one cannot appreciate the Chinese love of Nixon's trip.
Nixon's respect of China has been reaffirmed by his later deeds and words. Several months after the Tiannamen massacre, Nixon came to China again. The worldwide hostility towards Chinese leaders at that time threw into relief Nixon's wisdom and courage in making the trip. In his final book "Beyond Peace," he urges that "...in the future, particularly on the foreign policy issues, we should treat China with the respect a great power deserves and not as a pariah nation."
Watergate was Nixon's Waterloo, which not only smeared his reputation as a great president, but made him a villain in American history. The Chinese sympathize with Nixon in regards to the Watergate scandal. This sympathy arose less from Chinese good feeling about Nixon than from Chinese belief that his punishment was not commensurate with his mistake. For institutional and cultural reasons, Chinese leaders enjoy more freedom to do what they want to do. The Chinese deemed it incredible that a burglary in the Watergate complex led to the downfall of a powerful American president. More sophisticated and cynical Chinese would go further by saying that other American politicians were not angels either.
If that were the case, J. Edgar Hoover would not have served as the FBI chief for so long. In fact, Hoover told Nixon that President Johnson had ordered the FBI to bug Nixon's campaign plane. All these facts do not imply that the Chinese thought that Nixon had done the right thing, but meant that Nixon received a more severe punishment than he deserved. The Chinese admire the high moral standards that Americans expect of their leaders, and realize that Nixon's resignation provided a good precedent in American politics.
In judging a person, the Chinese set store by one's personality. Nixon's indigence, intelligence and fortitude leave deep impressions on the Chinese. They respect those who grow up in poor families but pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
The Chinese admire those who do not resign themselves to fates after they repeatedly fall from favor. Not least of all, the Confucian traditions lead the Chinese to hold scholar-statesmen in high esteem. What distinguishes Nixon from the vast majority of statesmen in human history is the fact that he published 10 remarkable books during his life. Almost all of Nixon's books have been translated into the Chinese languages, which boosts his popularity in that country.
President Nixon's death is a great loss to the Chinese. No matter how history will pass judgment on him, the Chinese will regard him as a great friend.
Shaohua Hu is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of International Service.