On the documentary “Assignment: China – The Week That Changed The World”

I was very bored a few nights ago and my VPN was working just great, so I decided to watch some documentary on Youtube.

I remembered I recently read something about Richard Nixon’s visit in China and I now wanted to watch something on this topic. After a few searches I found the documentary Assignment: China – The Week That Changed The World, which had a promising name and was relatively short -52 minutes, perfect watch before going to sleep. The documentary is produced by the USC U.S.-China Institute. That visit was very important, as it started the relations between People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. The leaders of the two countries understood at that moment that they can no longer ignore each other, as they had many mutual interests; the most important mutual interest was opposing the mutual enemy -The Soviet Union.

Perhaps the best reads on this topic are Henry Kissinger books The White House Years and On China. Kissinger was the first US official to (secretly) visit PR China, in July 1971, in order to start the dialogue with China and to prepare Nixon’s visit in February 1972. For me it was very interesting to read in On China the difficulties he had, together with the Chinese prime-minister Zhou Enlai, when preparing the press release that was to announce Nixon’s visit in China. Both Kissinger and Zhou Enlai wanted to give to the public the feeling that their country was the one being courted, at the expense of the other. In the end they reached a middle ground, issuing the following communique Knowing of President Nixon’s expressed desire to visit the People’s Republic of China, Premier Chou Enlai, on behalf of the government of the People’s Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China. President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure (Chapter 9).

So both parties were very cautious on how they were communicating about the visit (an important point that I will address later); behind them where more than two decades of mutual hostility, the Korean War and (apparently) incompatible ideologies.

The documentary emphasizes on the memories and opinions of the US journalists who accompanied Nixon in his visit in China. The problem is, as told by narrator and the journalists, that during the visit the press was sparsely informed about the program of the US officials so the most they could do was attend staged events. Sometimes they would only afterwards find out about the meetings Nixon or Kissinger had. As everything about this visit was very sensitive, the US and the Chinese officials wanted to be sure that the press would not relate the events in a way that would jeopardize future dialogue. Also, Nixon was soon to run for a second term as a US president, so it was important for him to make sure the press will only have access to things that would put him in a good light. The US journalists were discontent with that, but there was little they could do. Evidently, the Chinese media was covering the event in the same vague terms.

So this documentary is about these people who visited China at the same time with Nixon and Kissinger, but who had little idea about what was actually happening there. At most, they could relate unimportant stories about their experience in China, but nothing more. For example one of the journalists describes in a profound way how he asked his Chinese interpreter to say a joke and he replied that he didn’t know any; another journalist describes how amazed he was when he saw how the Chinese people were cleaning the snow in the Tiananmen Square. Most of the journalists say in the documentary that they knew nothing about China when they went there due to its isolation. This is another reason why I can’t take their opinions too seriously.

Nixon’s visit in China took place in 1972, so most of the interviewed journalists describe the events with great melancholy. One of them said that this visit is by far the most important any US President ever made. Perhaps he is right, but I am sure FDR would have something to comment.

To conclude, I only recommend this documentary if you really don’t know anything about that first meeting between the leaders of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

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