China has always had an exotic and mysterious appeal for westerners. Toward the end of the second World War and after 1949, that image was tainted by the idea of a Communist menace and the Cold War. China closed it’s doors to the west after the Cultural Revolution and severed it’s ties with the United States.
But after a series of secret trips made by Henry Kissinger to China, President Nixon declared his intentions to meet with the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, in 1972, and reopen a door that had been closed for almost a quarter of a century.
At the Boston University College of Communications, Mike Chinoy, former CNN correspondent and senior fellow of the US-China Institute, presented the screening of his documentary, Assignment China, on the historic trip. The event “opened a door which had not really been open at all. It lay the groundwork both in terms of the diplomatic relationship and in terms of improving the public opinion in these two countries that had been enemies and adversaries,” said Chinoy “ and that’s why when Nixon talked about how this is —the week that changed the world— he is right.”
The documentary follows the experiences of some the 87 journalists and reporters that where allowed to be present at the meeting. As it turned out President Nixon, who had not had a good relationship with the press, planned the trip in such a way that the reporters were not allowed to show anything that would hinder the positive image of the Nixon administration as well as the Chinese communist party.
The reporters could only cover the official Nixon events or choose from a menu of showcase places, such as the model farm, the school and the zoo, and were always accompanied by government minders. “Some of the reporters I interviewed described going to China with Nixon like going to the moon, so if you go to the moon and you only see very little, it’s still the moon, and you haven’t seen it before!” said Chinoy.
The reporters that were allowed to cover the enterprise were some of the most famous names in journalism: Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters and Dirk Halstead to name a few. The trip was so sensational that “reporters were willing to push their mothers under a train in order to get a place,” as Halstead put it.
Nixon on the other hand, did all he could to avoid including the Washington Post and the New York Times in the expedition, by literally crossing them out as shown in the documentary, but had to relent allowing them each to send one correspondent.
The trip was an enormous success and contributed to better the relationship between the US and China, resolve the question of Taiwan, and open the barriers that had enclosed one billion people from the global market. The consequences are evident today as almost 30 years later, in 2009, President Obama, met with the Chinese President Hu Jintau, under very different circumstances. “Now we are bowing down in front of China saying -give us more money because we are going broke!- we have come a long way from 1972,” said BU Professor, Anne Donahue, who was present at the screening.
The reporters in China in 1972 complained about the staged events and resented what was obviously a Nixon campaign during a very important election year. But while that moment signified for China the beginning of a new openness and transparency, in the US it marked the peak of the ability of the White House to influence and manipulate the press. “Starting with this Nixon trip, the White House figured out how to manage the press, giving little snippets of what they wanted them to se and hear, while not allowing them to get the whole picture”, said Donahue, “Nixon’s two top aides came from the advertising industry, they knew about optics, they knew about what it should look like and how to package it.”
Today in China reporters are allowed to live anywhere in Beijing and to travel anywhere around the country. There are hundreds of western reporters based in China. Also some great media coverage of China has emerged just recently, from the exposé by David Barbosa for the New York Times, that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, on the hidden wealth of the family of China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. Also the scandal involving Bo Xilai, the communist party boss, who was toppled and recently tried and convicted in jail, produced some really interesting reporting partly founded on leaks from Chinese sources.
The documentary offers a unique glimpse into the behavior of the governments of two great nations in relation to the press, and reminds reporters today of the dangers and issues of reporting on the government.