In 1967, when Time magazine managed to get an Australian reporter by the name of John Cantwell into mainland China, his dispatch read like what a report from North Korea–or from another planet–would look like today. “Red Guards march around in vigilante groups, stern-faced and forbidding…. I saw them surround and berate an old man who dared look at an anti-Mao poster…. Hostile crowds sometimes surrounded me, and people shouted: ‘What are you doing here, white devil?'” A delicate beauty from the Chinese travel service informed him, “Chairman Mao has taught us that we must crush the American aggressors. We must kill, crush, destroy all imperialist monsters.” “Practically no one smiles,” Cantwell wrote. Good thing, readers might have concluded, we were fighting a war in Vietnam to contain these lunatics.
A scant forty-two months later, America was introduced to a China where everyone smiled. American Ping-Pong players, invited on a surprise visit in April 1971, received hospitality so overwhelming a team member started crying. One player, Tim Boggan, reporting back in an article for the New York Times, affectionately described a “large playground where perhaps 200 children of all ages were playing soccer, basketball, and other sports,” the kind of camaraderie he said he’d like to see more of in the United States. Less than a year after that, on Richard Nixon’s historic visit, the nation saw this busy, happy, industrious people for themselves on TV: families picnicking at the Ming Tombs; a chef at the Peking Hotel transforming a turnip into a chrysanthemum for the First Lady; Pat Nixon, fetching in a white lab coat, cheered by the adorable moppets at Peking Children’s Hospital.
Study the tourist snaps on Flickr.com from the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, all the stops on the Nixons’ itinerary: America’s China is now the place where everyone smiles. One typical stop for upper-middle-class tourists on tightly scripted itineraries even recalls Tim Boggan at the playground and Mrs. Nixon at the children’s hospital: the Shanghai Children’s Palace, a lovely old mansion where adorable children dance ballet, play accordions, learn computer programming, practice Chinese opera. An affluent American couple I talked with upon their return from China rhapsodized about it, gushing that every child in this nation of 1.3 billion–this they had been given to understand by their guide–is provided such opportunities free. It seemed, I responded, better than anything a typical American child can expect. “A lot better,” the wife responded. I pressed; she allowed some skepticism to creep into her voice: “It’s possible they made it look better than it was.” No such skepticism, though, when the subject turned to their tour of the site of the Three Gorges Dam, which soon will cause the Yangtze River reservoir to rise to 175 meters over sea level. “It’s going to solve a lot of their problems,” the husband gushed, noting the high-rises being built to house the million exiles who will be displaced, who now live in “shacks like you wouldn’t believe.” “They’re really on the cusp of an economic revolution.”
This man, retired after many decades building a successful business in the Midwest, is a car nut who long ago became dismayed by, then resigned to, the slow decline of American industrial dominance. He didn’t see any American cars on China’s newly teeming roads; China, he pointed out, is “going to start exporting cars to the US in the next few years.” He couldn’t imagine America building a Three Gorges Dam. That was for the Chinas of the world–civilizations of destiny.