China in the 1970s


"[In the early 1970's], long before the deluge of tourists and traders was allowed into 'Red China,' there were no direct flights between Hong Kong and Beijing. You traveled the 40 miles to Canton by train or hovercraft and then continued by plane to Beijing. On the flight a cheerful attendant in a baggy uniform made her way down the aisle pouring tea from a large dented and blackened kettle. She would return with your snack--stewed chicken feet or pickled cabbage--and keepsakes ...

"The U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing was a drab two story structure about the size of a Denny’s Restaurant. It did not look like the product of secret meetings between some of the towering figures of the twentieth century.

On a trip to Vietnam in July 1971, Henry Kissinger disappeared for a weekend to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. In 1972 came what a Tokyo paper ... called the 'Nixon Shokku.' Incredibly, Nixon and Mao Zedong had agreed to work toward a normalization of relations. At a follow-up meeting in February 1973, Zhou invented the concept of the 'Liaison Office,' which would allow a handful of American and Chinese nationals to work in each other's capitals before full diplomatic relations could be established.

"The State Department worked under the premise that the best way to get along with communist countries during the Cold War was by letting them learn as much as possible about our culture and the workings of democracy. My job was to help Chinese librarians, long isolated from all things Western, gain access to information from the States ... I stayed at the century-old Peking Hotel, its stolid facade hiding scars from the Boxer Rebellion. The hotel had been renovated in the 1950s and a new Soviet styled wing added on, but it was always stuffed with members of the USLO awaiting quarters, with entire families often jammed into a single room for months ...

"You were never in danger of losing you hotel key; you never got one ... hotel staff could walk into your room at any time. Unlocked doors may have threatened privacy, but they didn’t seem to affect security. I could leave my camera or a cash stuffed wallet in my room confident they would be undisturbed ...

"The chief and the deputy chief [of the USLO] had to share in entertaining visiting dignitaries, but their wives couldn't stage a dinner party on the same night because there was only one set of formal dinnerware ... "After almost six years of diplomatic limbo, the day came [in 1979] to take down the sign for the Liaison Office and put up one that read United States of America Embassy."

Don Hausrath, "USLO Peking", American Heritage, September 2005, pp. 68-9.