When Chinese diplomats arrived in New York in 1971, they might as well have landed on another planet.
The United Nations had just transferred China’s seat at the global body from Taipei to Beijing, a momentous step. Yet what first struck many of these new arrivals were the colors. On clothing, in shop fronts, and on neon signs, they saw a world that seemed physically and even morally jarring compared with the monochrome uniformity of home. For the first time in their lives, the group of mostly middle-aged men saw pornographic theaters, prostitutes, strip clubs, and sex stores with lurid “items that made you sick,” one of them wrote in a memoir.
It was all a long way from Mao’s China. This was the New York City of Shaft and Jesus Christ Superstar. The world’s first electronic stock exchange, Nasdaq, had opened in February, and the newly topped-out Twin Towers of the World Trade Center dominated the city’s skyline. Crime raged in the streets below as the murder rate once again set a record; the mob boss Joseph Colombo had been shot in the head just a few months before the delegation’s arrival.
Chinese diplomats knew they were out of place. “To Americans, the arrival of the Chinese delegation seemed like the sudden appearance of aliens,” another wrote.
Of course, this was also a pivotal moment for Chinese foreign policy, one which saw the country integrate into the world with extraordinary speed. Its entrance into the United Nations helped spark a process that would eventually see China establish ties with virtually every other nation in the world. It would also see Beijing sign on to treaties and multilateral organizations that helped define the status quo of international politics.
The People’s Republic was a member of just one intergovernmental organization in 1971. By 1989, it was a member of 37 and had signed more than 125 international treaties. By 2001, this process of establishing ties and joining global bodies had helped precipitate such transformative changes in the country’s political economy that the Communist nation could join the World Trade Organization. In 2008, China’s national-defense white paper boasted that the country’s role in multilateral affairs was “notably elevating its international position and influence.”
China’s participation at the United Nations likewise expanded rapidly. In 2019, it surpassed Japan as the second-largest contributor to the organization’s budget; it now provides more personnel to peacekeeping operations than any of the four other permanent members of the Security Council, even as it lobbies along with Russia to cut human-rights posts in peacekeeping missions. Chinese diplomats are also pushing to have Xi Jinping catchphrases included in UN resolutions.
China’s incorporation into the global economy and international institutions was a hopeful sign for many Western elites that the country might one day become more like the West by embracing market economics and, eventually, liberal democracy. But most party elites in Beijing never saw things that way. Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to Xi have always seen participation in international organizations and groups as validation of their rule. These mismatched expectations have led to confusion, hurt feelings, and bitter disappointment on both sides, as was evident in incidents such as the Tiananmen massacre and China’s crackdown on human-rights activists in the years after the 2008 Olympic Games.
In 1971, all of that was decades away. The first diplomats to touch down in New York were watched closely for their political loyalty, but their immediate task was to make sense of the strange city in which they found themselves.
With no consulate building in New York, the delegation booked nearly the whole 14th floor of the Roosevelt Hotel, close to the UN headquarters, to live and work in. This small area became an enclave of Communist China, sealed—as best the delegation could manage—from the world outside. Everyone except the very top leaders was paired off in twin rooms. No staff member was permitted to leave the hotel except for official meetings. Even recreational walks were forbidden after a while.
The basics of life in New York City were tough for the delegation at first. Diplomats found sleeping difficult with the roar of city life outside the window. None of the three drivers in the group had a valid driver’s license, so everyone had to rely on yellow New York taxis.
The diplomats watched the news and read The New York Times, but the cultural gulf was hard to overcome. Western diplomats would talk about “new movies, music, entertainment, and fashion as well as women,” remembered a translator in the group. “But the Chinese delegation observed strict discipline and, even though we were overseas, we couldn’t watch movies or entertainment shows. There was a gap with contemporary Western culture. We found ourselves with nothing to say when these topics came up.”
Working at the United Nations presented the Chinese diplomats with the steepest learning curve they had faced since their first missions overseas in 1949. One of them compared the UN to a school where they could learn for the first time how the national interests of countries around the world fit together.
Back in Beijing, officials in the foreign ministry and across the government raced to read reports sent back by the delegation. Each one contained new information about the outside world.
As steep as the learning curve was, it was clear that China’s admission to the UN was a breakthrough for the country’s international standing. When one of the diplomats, Qiao Guanhua, delivered China’s first speech to the organization, one participant remembered, “we could feel China’s international status increasing.”
And indeed it did. A wave of diplomatic recognition followed, each new relationship representing a victory over Taiwan. In the Middle East, Beijing established relations with Iran, Kuwait, and Lebanon in 1971, and in Europe, it was recognized by Italy, Austria, Belgium, Greece, West Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Before the end of the decade, the People’s Republic had normalized relations with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, as well as dozens more countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, bringing the total to 120 countries.
Most important, China gained the official recognition of the United States, in 1979.
It wasn’t only in New York City that Chinese diplomats found they still had a lot to learn. Envoys returning to posts around the world were tasked with rebuilding ties damaged by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and prizing away Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. Making progress was an uphill battle: At every turn, they faced reminders of how far China had fallen behind and just how mistrusted their revolutionary rhetoric had left them.
In Canada, diplomats had difficulty separating truth from their own propaganda. One unlikely example presented itself right next to the embassy in Ottawa in the form of an elderly-care facility.
After curiously observing the building from the outside for some weeks, a group of embassy staff ventured in to investigate. On the surface, conditions seemed good. The rooms were warm and clean. Each room had a sofa, a carpeted floor, and a button for calling staff. The building’s elevator ran day and night, connecting residential floors with a small bar, a recreational room, and a library.
Their conclusion was clear: The home was a ruse designed to deceive China about conditions in the capitalist West. Only later did the truth dawn on them, as the diplomats discovered similar facilities all over the country. This was just what life was like for Canadians.
“We came to understand that there were old people’s homes just like this in every city across Canada,” one military attaché recalled, “and that supply was sufficient to meet local needs.” The diplomats’ behavior resembles how other governments often deal with Beijing, projecting assumptions about how their own political system works onto China. In foreign-policy jargon, this is called “mirror imaging,” and it’s a pitfall CIA analysts are cautioned against in their training, yet is a near-permanent feature of Western relations with China.
In the 1980s, Chinese diplomats would head into meetings with the State Department’s China Desk and instruct officials to “please do something about your Congress” when American lawmakers asked difficult questions about Beijing’s rights record or other policies, implying that it was within the State Department’s power to keep Congress quiet. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, China’s top diplomat at the time, Dai Bingguo, asked his French counterparts why they hadn’t done more to stop the country’s media from smearing China over its record in Tibet. If only American and French diplomats had such powers.
Things were no different across the developing world. Chinese diplomats arriving in Venezuela were struck by the number of tall buildings. Those dispatched to Kenya saw air conditioners, taxis, and commercial parking lots for the first time.
Even more humbling, many began to realize that they didn’t understand even the basics of diplomacy. Most of the senior staff were old revolutionaries who couldn’t speak foreign languages, while younger officials had seen their language skills slip during the Cultural Revolution. They were sent to represent China in societies that felt threatened by the aggressiveness China had displayed during the Cultural Revolution.
The experiences of China’s future foreign minister Li Zhaoxing give some sense of the problem. By the time Li, then just 30, arrived in Kenya in 1970, the country had limited China’s Nairobi embassy to eight staff members and routinely subjected them to searches, despite their diplomatic status.
It was little wonder. Just a few years after establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1963, Kenyan diplomats had been threatened in the streets of Beijing. In 1967, the country withdrew its diplomatic staff from China and expelled a Chinese diplomat after the embassy distributed copies of Mao’s Little Red Book in Nairobi.
During a routine visit to a local tax office, Li discovered that embassy staff had been paying land taxes to the Kenyan government for years, despite the exemption granted for diplomatic property under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which he’d learned about in college.
No one in the embassy had thought to apply this basic tenet of diplomatic practice. “We didn’t tell you to pay tax,” a local tax officer told Li, “but you came to pay and so we took the payment.”
China’s diplomats—just like the rest of the country—had spent half a decade embroiled in brutal factional fighting and personal attacks. Now they had to return to work as if all was normal.
With the Gang of Four—a powerful political grouping that had helped push the Cultural Revolution toward violence—still in power in Beijing, there couldn’t yet be any official reckoning with recent events. The diplomats would have to work things out on their own.
When China’s ambassador to Ghana arrived back at his post in 1972, one of the cadres who had attacked him in Beijing was sent to work as his subordinate. The young official apologized for what he had done and assumed his duties.
In Beijing, too, there were signs that the worst might be over. On January 6, 1972, Chen Yi, China’s foreign minister, died after a long battle with cancer. He was a political persona non grata right up until the end. His doctors spent months insisting that there was nothing wrong with him, to avoid the political risks associated with taking him on as a patient. His memorial on January 10 was to be a low-key affair. Mao would not attend and neither would most senior diplomats who had worked with Yi.
But on the day, the 78-year-old Mao suddenly announced that he planned to attend the funeral instead of taking his regular afternoon nap. Still wearing his pajamas, he donned an overcoat and set out. Lacking a comb, Mao’s bodyguard straightened the chairman’s greasy hair with his fingers.
Zhou Enlai also sprang into action. He had his staff inform everyone who’d been told they couldn’t go that they could now attend, and arrange for journalists and photographers to rush to the cemetery to greet Mao on his arrival. Zhou’s limousine raced ahead of Mao’s so that Zhou could personally ensure every detail of the arrangements was perfect. State media’s announcement of Mao’s visit was a cryptic sign that change was afoot.
What happened soon after was less ambiguous. On February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon touched down in Beijing.
This post was excerpted from Martin’s book, China’s Civilian Army: The Inside Story of China’s Quest for Global Power. When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.