163. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • My October China Visit: The Atmospherics

A Cool Arrival

We began our stay in China under what superficially appeared to be chilly circumstances. When we landed in Shanghai on October 20 the weather was partially overcast, and only a handful of PRC officials were on hand to greet us—the same four who had met us last July in [Page 518] Rawalpindi plus two representatives of the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office. Their manner seemed correct, but restrained. And in Peking the reception committee was virtually the same as the one which greeted us in July when we arrived secretly, although this time the visit was publicly announced. As before, Marshal Yeh Chien-ying headed the official PRC party, joined this time by Acting Foreign Minister Chi P’eng-fei (whose presence did serve to up-grade the affair).

Our move from the airport to the Guest House (the same one which we stayed in before, incidentally) was similarly chilly. The motorcade skirted the city over roads which were closed to normal traffic and heavily guarded; the sky seemed grey and threatening. We discovered upon entering our rooms in the Guest House that each of them contained an English-language propaganda bulletin carrying an appeal on the cover for the people of the world to “overthrow the American imperialists and their running dogs.” I had a member of my staff hand the one in my room back to a PRC protocol officer with the remark that it must have been put there by accident; subsequently, we collected all these bulletins and presented them to the Chinese, who received them in silence. The Chinese staff at the Guest House on the first day were very cool and impassive— a fact especially noted by our Chinese-speaking members of the party.

Growing Warmth

A thaw began to set in later that day, when Prime Minister Chou En-lai met my entire official party in the Great Hall of the People. Following a photographic session of his staff and mine at the entrance to the conference room, Chou seated us inside behind the inevitable cups of green tea and proceeded to say a few words of personal greetings to everyone in the party. He was extremely cordial during the general meeting which followed. Then at the formal banquet which he hosted for the entire party (including the crew of the aircraft) he shook hands with each one of us individually; he gave what I consider to be an extraordinarily warm welcoming toast (attached at Tab A);2 and he went around the room after the toast to touch glasses with every American present. Chou had done his biographic homework well on those Americans at his table, and flattered them with references to their educational and professional history or past experience in China.

From this point on the character of the visit was firmly fixed by our Chinese hosts. It was in my judgment a careful, thoughtful, conscientious effort, first:

  • —to make me and my party feel like truly welcome guests; and second;
  • —to get the Chinese public accustomed to the idea that a senior U.S. official and the members of his party were in fact being received as honored guests by the top PRC leadership.

The way my visit was built up by the Chinese leaders, as well as the lengths to which they went to assure that the public and lower- ranking PRC officials got the message, became very apparent as the days went by.

Publicizing the Visit

The day after our arrival we learned from foreign press reports that the People’s Daily (the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper) had on the preceding day carried an announcement of the arrival which reported the composition of the welcoming committee. Although to us the composition of this group was virtually the same as before, no politically-aware Chinese could have missed the point that I was met by very high-ranking PRC personalities indeed.

More significantly, on October 21, the People’s Daily carried two photographs of Chou En-lai’s meeting with us the day before. One was the group photograph of our two parties standing together outside the conference room, with Chou by my side. The other depicted us sitting down in the period prior to the general meeting during which Chou had extended his personal greetings to me and all the members of the party. These two photographs were very similar in format to those which have been taken when Chou has met innumerable other delegations, except for one thing—they showed Chou extending the same courtesies to me, as the representative of the President of the United States, which he had extended to personalities who were allies or at least neutrals. The average Chinese could not have failed to be greatly impressed, if not shaken, by this juxtaposition. This was the first time any American official had been pictured in the press with PRC officials. This was a clear signal to the populace.

Anti-American Propaganda

I should note here that I did not become aware of the People’s Daily photographs until late on October 22, and in the meantime had raised with Chou the question of offensive anti-American signs in Peking. I had noticed a Reuters story covering my arrival which had said that the Chinese had had their little joke; my motorcade had driven past a series of Chinese characters at the airport which denounced “American Imperialism.” At my meeting with Chou on the afternoon of October 22, I handed him this story and pointed out the problems that language of this nature would create for you. He responded along the lines of what he had said that morning about the PRC’s anti-U.S. propaganda in general: this was “firing an empty cannon.” However, he seemed to accept what I had said and to take it to heart. More about this later.

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Informing Party and Government Officials

On the evening of October 22 an event occurred which I consider quite exceptional, and which must have had the same effect on the Chinese present. We were taken to the Great Hall of the People to see a “revolutionary” version of Peking Opera, and were met there by Marshal Yeh Chien-ying, the Acting Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister’s Secretary, and other leading PRC personalities. These escorted us into the auditorium, where to (I am sure) our mutual surprise, approximately 500 cadres, or PRC and Chinese Communist Party officials, were in attendance. Immediately upon entering the hall, Marshal Yeh and the other top PRC leaders began to clap their hands loudly, inviting a response from the audience. I must in all candor admit that the American visitors did not exactly bring the house down, but the point was surely driven home: these Americans were honored guests who were distinctly personae gratae to the PRC. The Acting Foreign Minister told me during the intermission that the members of the audience were hand-picked from among personnel of the Foreign Ministry and other key PRC departments. These people were ones whom the senior leaders particularly wanted to read the handwriting on the wall.

(It later occurred to us that the applause might have been more prolonged if we had joined in! While this would be inappropriate in our customs—as well as in Chinese tradition—the PRC has emulated their despised Soviet revisionist fellow socialists in this regard: the honored guests are expected to join in, reciprocally—and simultaneously.)

Exposure to the Public

If the Peking Opera event could be taken as Chou En-lai’s means of enlightening the cadres as to the new turn in events, then my trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs on October 23 was his way of bringing the public into the picture. When our motorcade departed at about 9:00 a.m., I found myself escorted not just by protocol representatives, as would have been perfectly proper (and acceptable), but by the Acting Foreign Minister, the Secretary to the Prime Minister and the Mayor of Peking. These ostentatiously led me up the steep inclines of the Great Wall before a scattering of curious onlookers, and later down into the tomb of one of the Ming Emperors before a much larger group of spectators. By this time, the People’s Daily arrival announcement of October 20 and photographs of October 21 had been widely noted; I could see that I was being recognized and that the level of my official escort was being taken in.

It was during the trip to the Great Wall that I believe some payoff from my remarks to Chou En-lai on signs could be noted. As we drove farther into the mountains and the pass narrowed it became more and more obvious that a large number of slogans painted on the rocks along the road had been blotted out. Of course, this could have been [Page 521] a by-product of the general down-playing of sloganry since the end of the Cultural Revolution, but my staff assures me that at least some of the blotted-out slogans looked freshly done. Another point of interest about this trip concerns security: at literally every road junction along the entire right-of-way there was at least one uniformed member of the Public Security Forces. This in itself was no small enterprise.

The next day, October 23, brought a further and even more ostentatious appearance before the Chinese public. Our Chinese hosts had arranged a visit for me and the members of my party to the Summer Palace, about a half-hour’s drive west of Peking, and once again I was escorted by senior PRC officials rather than by protocol functionaries. My host on this occasion was Marshal Yeh, who saw to it that he and I were properly displayed together before what the Chinese call “the masses.” The Acting Foreign Minister and the Secretary to the Prime Minister were also present. The high point of this episode was our taking tea aboard a boat poled out onto the Summer Palace lake in plain view of literally hundreds of Chinese spectators. The fact that a strong, cold wind was blowing (on an otherwise perfect day) did not deter our hosts; they clearly wanted this boatride to take place and only a hurricane could have prevented it. When I waved to the crowds of people on the shore, they clapped loudly. Word was sinking in, but I should add, too, that there appeared to be no coaching and that the applause seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

Apropos of our visit to the Summer Palace, Prime Minister Chou told me later in one of our restricted sessions that a North Vietnamese newsman had been there and had taken many photographs. The Chinese. Chou said, had assumed from his appearance that he was one of “them;” they had not recognized him as being a North Vietnamese and were more than a little disturbed to discover his true identity.

Visits to Points of Interest Around Peking

Over the next two and a half days I became involved with the Prime Minister in serious substantive discussions, and found that my movements as a result became rather restricted. Others of the party, however, continued to move about the city and its environs, looking at centers of interest which you yourself might wish to visit. Significant impressions were:

  • —Along the route to an oil refinery and chemical complex, some 40 km. west of Peking, the people appeared to be forewarned of the motorcade, and showed much interest in it. Sizeable crowds gathered to watch the group pass in villages and major road junctions. There were no evidences of hostility; quite the contrary—the bystanders seemed pleased to see Americans.
  • —Near the oil refinery, an obvious job of painting over signs had taken place. The road bent between two large brick and plaster billboard-size signs, one of which still contained an innocuous [Page 522] propaganda exhortation, and the other of which had been splashed over, obviously hastily, with red paint.
  • —At the oil refinery itself, the authorities were correct but friendly. Certainly our people were treated no differently from other foreigners who have visited the complex.
  • —In Peking, when several members of the party went shopping at the Friendship Store (the special store for foreigners), a large crowd of Chinese gathered quickly to watch, but with evident goodwill. The sales personnel were extremely friendly and helpful, despite the fact that as a courtesy to us the store had been kept open past the normal closing time.
  • —Another stop which a number of the group made in Peking was at a hospital where the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture (treatment of ailments by needles) was being put to modern use. What nobody expected was that this turned out to be a display of acupuncture techniques used as anasthesia for three major surgical operations: an appendectomy, the removal of an ovarian cyst, and the removal of a portion of a diseased lung. Although none of our people had any medical background whatsoever, they were led as “American friends” through every stage of these operations. (I am pleased to report that all operations were a success.) This strikes me as being somewhat beyond the ordinary in the reception of foreigners who are not M.D.’s.

The morning prior to the acupuncture episode a free moment occurred for me while Prime Minister Chou and his colleagues discussed some of the substantive points which I had raised. A suggestion was made that I should visit the Temple of Heaven, south of the main city of Peking, which I accepted. The Chinese were able to arrange this on 30 minutes notice, and also saw to it that the Mayor of Peking was present to accommodate our party to the temple area—the site where the Emperors of China prayed annually for a good year. Once again we were on public display before the people of Peking in company with leading PRC officials.

Additional Impressions

A few other vignettes may help to characterize the spirit with which the Chinese received us:

  • —On the evening of October 24 a farewell banquet at the Great Hall of the People, which was originally to be hosted by the Acting Foreign Minister, was preempted by Chou En-lai. Chou did not have to do this, but made the extra effort. As before, he was a most gracious host. He did not, though, repeat the round of toasts—once the dinner was over, he and I went into a nearby conference room for a further discussion of substantive issues.
  • —As I have previously indicated, the aircraft crew was given the most hospitable treatment. Sightseeing tours were arranged for the crewmen, special quarters were constructed for them at the airport, gifts were provided, and indeed they were accorded the same kind of meticulous courtesy with which those of us in the Guest House in Peking became so familiar.
  • —Repeatedly during my conversations with Chou En-lai a deep and abiding Chinese hatred of the Russians came through. The Chinese are concerned about Soviet power, but utterly contemptuous of the motivations of the leaders who exercise this power.
  • —Also at frequent intervals during my conversations with Chou, he brought in the fact that Chairman Mao Tse-tung was fully behind the USPRC contact. This line of Chou’s must surely be seeping through to the members of the Chinese Communist Party heirarchy.
  • —The (to me) remarkable display of courtesy and warmth which has been accorded us. This ranged from the detailed and meticulous way we were housed, fed, and transported, to the cordiality of our social conversations and tours, to the beautiful gifts and collections of photographs with which each of us were plied upon departure. I realize that the Chinese are traditionally capable of being good hosts under strained circumstances, but the treatment we have received appears to transcend what might have been expected. For us, a rapprochement is a matter of tactics, but for them it involves a profound moral adjustment. This is not easy for them, but they are making it and more.

My final observation once again concerns signs. I have mentioned the offensive sign at the airport noted in the news reports upon our arrival which the interpreter in my car indeed translated for me as we sped past it on our way into Peking as something having to do with “American Imperialism.” When on October 26 we returned to the airport prior to our departure, the offensive characters were gone. The sign was still there, but had been completely repainted; the message had nothing to do with the United States.

Peking’s Commitment to Improving Relations

There are many possible conclusions which might be drawn from the atmospherics of this visit to Peking. In my opinion, one conclusion stands out above all the others: the Chinese leadership is committed to a course leading toward an improvement of relations with the U.S. The People’s Daily announcement and photographs, the display of friendship toward us by top PRC officials before their cadres, the public gestures of friendship, the toning down of anti-U.S. propaganda, and the many instances of personal courtesies extended to us, all underscore this commitment. Any reversal of the direction in which the PRC leadership is moving would at this point probably involve serious domestic repercussions for Prime Minister Chou En-lai and the other senior personalities who have joined with him in this endeavor.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1035, Files for the President—China Material, China, HAK’s October 1971 Visit. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. Attached but not printed. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–13, Document 38.