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Listeners Want To Know About The History Of U.S.-China Relations


You have, no doubt, heard plenty of chatter recently that the U.S. and China are on the verge of a trade war. Relations between the two countries may seem bad. But 50 years ago, they were even worse. For decades, Washington refused to even recognize China's communist government, but all that changed in 1972 when President Richard Nixon announced he was going to China.


RICHARD NIXON: I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China.

KING: So we're going to ask Cokie about the history of U.S.-China relations. Commentator Cokie Roberts takes your questions every week about the government. She talked to our co-host Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Cokie.


MARTIN: All right, our first question goes back to the very beginning. This comes from listener Ellen McClure (ph) who wants to know as follows, quote, "when was the first official diplomatic correspondence between China and the U.S.?"

ROBERTS: Well, the first official establishment of full bilateral relations was not until 1878, but diplomatic communication between the countries goes back well before that. And Rachel, it was all about trade. We're not just talking about trade for the first time (laughter)...

MARTIN: Right.

ROBERTS: ...With China. The Boston Tea Party - what they threw into the harbor was Chinese tea. So it has been around for a long time. The Americans were eager to establish their own trade with China once we became a country. So the wealthy merchants got together, built a fabulous ship - the Empress of China - and sent it off on an 18,000 mile trip in 1794 to China. It was filled with ginseng for the Chinese and a few shekels of silver. It came back the next year - the ship did - with silks, teas and what we call china - porcelain, fancy...

MARTIN: Right.

ROBERTS: ...Tea sets, et cetera. The Americans liked the Chinese goods a whole lot better than the Chinese liked the American goods, and that pattern has been true ever since.

MARTIN: OK, so we know that by the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers were actually coming to the U.S. by the thousands. How did that end up affecting the two countries?

ROBERTS: Well, at first, we welcomed them. They worked in the gold mines in California. And then they really built the United States railroads, especially the Transcontinental Railroad. And the Burlingame Treaty that was ratified in 1869 was mainly, again, about trade, but it also encouraged Chinese laborers to come to the United States. But then we had one of those waves of anti-immigration. And the Chinese exclusion acts were passed in 1882, freezing any immigration from China. Worse and worse exclusion acts got written. And then, finally, they were lifted during World War II when China became an ally.

MARTIN: And then, of course, the communists took control of China. And the U.S. then shut off communications until that famous trip by Richard Nixon, which leads to this question.

JULIA GIVEN: My name is Julia Given (ph). I'm from Jackson County, W.Va. Can you contrast the U.S. relations with China prior to and up to five years after Nixon's 1972 visit?

ROBERTS: Well, prior to the visit, there were really wouldn't - no relations. Journalists had to have a Canadian passport to get in. But then after the opening - first, Secretary of State Kissinger made a secret trip to China, and then the famous Nixon trip. And then there were other delegations - the Senate leaders, the House leaders, which included my father - going in 1972. But before then, trade had been growing very rapidly after Nixon's visit - from $5 million in 1972 to $142 million in 1978. Now, by the way, it's 578 billion.

MARTIN: Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. You can email us those questions at askcokie@npr.org or tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.