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Chou En-Lai and the Opening to the West

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The announcement on July 15, 1971, that President Nixon had accepted an invitation to travel to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders must have surprised the people of China, and of the world, in view of the state of affairs both within China and the world at that time. China itself was still in the waning period of the great Cultural Revolution which had been launched in 1966. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States had not existed for over 20 years, and the rift in Chinese-Soviet relations had badly deteriorated over the previous 12 years. The rhetoric of Chinese foreign policy was to encourage a peoples war against U.S. imperialism and its lackeys. The strategy of Premier Chou En Lai to reopen ties to the West via a rapprochement with the United States in that environment makes sense, however, when viewed in the larger context of Chinas national interests, the security and economic well-being of its 800 million people, and the preservation of its ideological faith for future generations. China viewed the presence of Soviet troops on its borders as well as the potential Soviet dominance of communist ideology as threats to its vital national interests. Moreover, the aftermath of both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution left the economy severely weakened, thereby threatening the well-being of its large population. To enhance and protect Chinas vital national interests, Chou sought a state of global equilibrium. To meet that goal, the priority was to counter Soviet power and aggression. This he proposed to do by utilizing diplomacy to normalize relations with the United States, thereby creating a counterweight to Soviet power. Furthermore, by ending its isolation and reaching out to normalize relations with the United States, China would be able to avail itself of the much needed technological information from the West. If Chinas economy was to grow to meet the demands of its population, contact with the West was indicated.

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Humanities and History

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