US President Richard Nixon went to China in February 1972, opening diplomatic relations with Mao and changing the dynamics of the Cold War. Henry Kissinger, his Secretary of State, went to China six months before, in July 1971, in great secrecy and in order to explore the possibility of a Nixon visit. He flew to Pakistan, changed planes there before dawn on Friday July 9, and arrived in Beijing at midday. Over that weekend, he spent 17 hours in meetings with Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai and a further four hours with aides from both sides, drafting a communiqué.
We know what happened from a lengthy and top secret (‘exclusively eyes only’) memorandum he wrote to Nixon on his return, in which he described the meeting as ‘the most searching, sweeping and significant discussions I have ever had in government’. ‘These meetings brought about a summit meeting between you and Mao Tse-Tung, covered all major issues between our two countries at considerable length and with great candor, and may well have marked a major new departure in international relations’.
But what was really happening here? What were these leaders doing that Kissinger found so difficult to capture? As we have come to expect, there was a meeting, there was talk, and some of what was said was committed to paper, in the communiqué which reported its outcome and in Kissinger’s memorandum. It took place ‘backstage’, and in secret, though it was also clearly staged and had its own sense of drama.
It also gives us clues as to why the deal – arranging Nixon’s visit – couldn’t be made in an exchange of diplomatic notes. It helps us understand why, for all the communication that might be made at distance – on paper, by phone, and more recently by email – meeting must be had face-to-face. Let’s look more closely at what happened, and more precisely how it happened.
After landing in Beijing, the US team was taken to a government guest house. Zhou arrived at 4.30 in the afternoon, and after small talk and photographs, the group moved to a conference table for three hours and more of discussion; they took dinner at 8.0 and talked again till after 11.0. Next morning, they visited the Forbidden City, then went to the Great Hall of the People for more discussion, in the course of which Zhou made a presentation lasting an hour and half, responding, without notes, to an agenda Kissinger had set out the night before. He was tough and direct, and Kissinger had begun to respond equally robustly when Zhou suggested they take lunch before it went cold.
Towards the end of lunch, Zhou started to reflect on the Cultural Revolution, describing China as ‘torn between its fear of bureaucracy and the excesses of revolution’. Zhou seemed to be offering something up, to be giving Kissinger the opportunity to empathise. They returned to their substantive discussion of the issues at hand, when ‘Zhou, suddenly, matter-of-factly returned to your visit to China. He suggested the summer of 1972’. The meeting adjourned at 6.0, the US team returned to the guest house and ‘an evening of fits and starts, of nighttime strolls and cancelled meetings and a complicated, occasionally painful minuet of communiqué drafting’.
The trajectory of the meeting is temporal, its chronology set by the rhythm of the day and its passages between light and dark, and of the human body, and its dependence for the work it does on pausing to eat and sleep. There is a manufactured constraint, too, in the deadline Kissinger set for his plane to leave, requiring that the work of meeting move from one task or stage to another before midday on Sunday.
This trajectory is also physical or spatial: it begins in travel across continents and continues in its protagonists moving from one building to another, from the government guest house on Friday evening to the Great Hall of the People on Saturday and then back to the guest house, and there from inside to outside, in cautious strolls between cancelled meetings as both sides struggle to move to a conclusion, the communiqué.
Kissinger also follows a trajectory from one interlocutor to another. He is accompanied on the plane down from Islamabad by Chang, the department head in the Foreign Ministry responsible for West European and American Affairs, and is met by Marshal Yeh, member of the Politburo and the Military Commission, and is then taken to the guest house to wait for Zhou. He doesn’t meet Mao; reaching Mao is reserved to Nixon six months later. Toward the end of the meeting, Zhou withdraws again until agreement is reached on the communiqué.
As time passes and people move, changes take place: things don’t just ‘go on’, but develop as work is done. Zhou’s and Kissinger’s roles are unstable compounds of diplomat and politician, leader and subordinate, principal and agent, adversary and collaborator, formal and informal, host and guest. Shifts within them are marked by changes of mood and emotion performed in and by the meeting: the Chinese are ‘relaxed and cordial’ as the US delegation arrives, but then ‘worried’ about why Kissinger had come secretly; Zhou is ‘genial’ at lunch, ‘anguished’ in talking about the Cultural Revolution. The ‘moral ambivalence’ of the meeting for the Chinese, Kissinger comments, is reflected ‘in a certain brooding quality, in the occasional schizophrenia of Zhou’s presentation’. There is a further sense in which the meeting itself is somehow transformational, as expressed in the developing sympathy and even solidarity between its key protagonists; over this weekend, they appear to bond; they are bound together, in seemingly unexpected ways, by their meeting and the work it must do.
So what are Zhou and Kissinger doing? They are doing politics, clearly, in what is a serious, substantive and far-reaching negotiation of world affairs. They are also, as an intrinsic aspect of their doing politics, engaged in a social encounter, one which is partly stylized in the set choreography of interactions between a host and his guest (including eating and sightseeing), but it is one which also turns on the myriad subtleties of human interaction. The shape of this development is set by patterns of immediate communication in talk, beginning with presentation and counter-presentation before turning to writing and reporting. It’s a face-to-face encounter, but it’s not just about faces: it is also intrinsically embodied. Face-to-face interaction matters so much because it is at the same time necessarily both cognitive and corporeal.
It’s also both highly ordered and deeply uncertain. What happened seems to have been some kind of success – and its success is one of the key reasons we know about it, why Kissinger should have wanted to write about it at such length – but it could have been otherwise, as the ethnomethodologists say. And that it happened at all seems to have turned on two men getting together round a table in a room and what follows from that.