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Pieces of China (S2, E3), Ambassador Winston Lord on Secret Trip to China that Changed History, 10.8.20

Pieces of China (S2, E3), Ambassador Winston Lord on Secret Trip to China that Changed History, 10.8.20

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 2, Episode 3 was a special one as we traveled back to 1971 with former Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord-then Special Assistant to the U.S. National Security Advisor- as he discussed the secret trip as the first American official to visit the People’s Republic since 1949 that put the country on a new path forward.

Under cover of darkness at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, he dug up a handful of dirt from the garden that he keeps as a memento to this day. The trip, with Henry Kissinger, meant much to Lord both personally and professionally and he shares anecdotes, images, and remembrances from his extensive time at the center of U.S.-China relations.

Selected Quotes from Ambassador Winston Lord:

(Two fun facts from the secret 1971 trip:)

It was not Kissinger who got to China first… because on the flight from Islamabad, I went to the front of the plane and got into China first.

Also, Kissinger’s people forgot to pack any shirts, so Kissinger had to borrow a shirt from a 6’3″ staff member, and he went around looking like a penguin. I told Kissinger, ‘you haven’t even started negotiations with the Chinese, and you already lost your shirt.’

What was it like in the Embassy when you were Ambassador from 1985-1989?

There was relatively free flowing conversation about political reform. So, we could have reformers and dissidents, and party officials, talking about political reform in China. That would be impossible today. This was right before Tiananmen Square—we had Taiwan problems, Tibet problems—but it was the most positive era since the opening.

Engagement was a bi-partisan policy. Critics today say that you were a bunch of naive idealists. Is that really what you thought was going to happen, that China would become a Democratic country?

We used to call US-China relations a “Sweet-n-Sour relationship.” It involved trying to get them more embedded in world institutions to temper their behavior in the long run. Even as we engaged China, we imposed sanctions…it wasn’t unilateral approval. Successive administrations were hopeful, without being naive, that China would open up.

South Korea, Indonesia, Chile…once they got to a certain level of economic reform and a middle class, they began to worry about political reform. We felt this historical phenomenon would unfold. We got a lot out of it: they moved greatly on non-proliferation, they helped us in Afghanistan, with the Ebola crisis, with anti-piracy…they helped us so there are plusses as well as tensions. But there has been a shift in Chinese behavior in recent years.

Is it time to throw out engagement?

There is a consensus that we should be firmer with China. I want to be fair, I think Trump was right to label them a strategic competitor…having said that, his approach is fatally flawed…He is using a machete instead of a scalpel. Tens of thousands of (Chinese) students are leaving the US. But my main point is: we should treat this as a Sputnik moment. We should welcome the competition with self-confidence. We need to do three things:

  • Get our act together at home with a functioning democracy to invest in the future.
  • Work with our allies, use our leverage with China instead of picking fights.
  • Assert leadership on the world stage and work with China on global problems like climate change.

  • Full Video of Pieces of China with Ambassador Winston Lord


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