In the late 1970s, after the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, the policy of the government of the People’s Republic of China (prc) in terms of scientific and technological exchanges and cooperation with the United States changed from rejection and exclusion to active participation and promotion. In this process, ideas and views played an important role. The outlook of the Chinese leadership and particularly Deng Xiaoping on science redefined China’s national interests, turning the promotion of Sino-U.S. science and technology cooperation into an active policy of the Chinese government. During the 1970s, the two countries conducted large-scale intergovernmental cooperation in the field of civil science and technology, signed the agreement on scientific and technological cooperation and dozens of memorandums of understanding and protocols, and finally, in 1979, established a long-term scientific and technological cooperation system. The article explores Sino-American relations through the prism of scientific and technological cooperation, showing how this contributed to creating long-term friendly relations beyond other high politics issues.
In 1975, the explosive growth of Sino-U.S. trade that only had resumed after 1971 ended with a severe decline from $920 million a year to just $461 million. The cause of the collapse was the unilateral decision of the People’s Republic of China (prc) to cancel several orders from late 1974 to early 1975. Scholars have advanced three reasons for the prc’s action, blaming to trade disputes, Beijing’s desire to punish the Americans for slow progress on the Taiwan issue, and Chinese trade officials preventing radicals from labeled them “compradors.” Each explanation, however, overstates the importance of high-level politics and ignores mid-level exchanges, as trade delegations shuttled back and forth across the Pacific in 1975. The article demonstrates that the real obstacle to trade in 1975 was China’s limited ability to purchase American grain in the same quantities as in the last four years, along with indications of a good future harvest in China emerging at the end of 1974. Economic factors therefore better explain the decline in prc-U.S. trade, providing an example of how in the last years of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing’s economic policy was more pragmatic than one would expect.
Prominent China studies academics who, with the assistance of members of the business and religious communities, founded the National Committee on United States-China Relations (ncuscr) in 1966 did not build it to last. Its leaders foresaw the organization’s work as “catalytic” and envisioned that it would be “going out of business as soon as possible.” By March 1971, with a new era of U.S. relations with China on the horizon, its leaders saw little reason to continue operations, and seriously contemplated closing up shop. Yet that April, the government of the People’s Republic of China hosted the U.S. Table Tennis team, and pledged to have its team make a reciprocal visit to the United States the following year, which the ncuscr funded and organized. This visit’s controversies mirrored the previous ideological divides the group had weathered. Conservative anti-Communist protesters and pro-Taiwan activists disrupted the earliest public events, but antiwar demonstrators, who appeared at later exhibition matches to protest President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Haiphong in North Vietnam, soon superseded them. Despite these pitfalls, the visit proved to be a great success for the nsuscr, which received a new lease on life and gained a renewed sense of purpose.