BEIJING — “He would be amazed,” exclaimed Christopher Nixon Cox, digging into a plate of fried rice over lunch in a starkly modern restaurant with black-clad waiters and white walls at the foot of the Great Wall of China.
Cox was referring to his grandfather, Richard Nixon, whose 1972 trip to China he is retracing.
Although the 34-year-old investment banker has been to China 15 times, he was channeling what he imagined would have been the late president’s awe four decades after that historic visit at seeing the skyscrapers, the bumper-to-bumper freeways, the fashions and other obvious manifestations of rising affluence.
“I remember my grandfather telling me that to have one billion of the world’s most hard-working and talented people in isolation is something that is dangerous for the world,” Cox recalled in an interview over lunch Saturday near the Badaling section of the Great Wall. “He felt that a prosperous China was critical for peace and stability.”
Nixon’s 1972 trip is generally credited for prying China back open to the world. It inspired the meme “Nixon in China” (long before anybody knew what a meme was) and a 1987 opera of the same name by American composer John Adams.
The commemorative trip, which marks what would have been Nixon’s 100th birthday, was organized by the Nixon Foundation, an offshoot of the late president’s library in Yorba Linda, Calif., and the Chinese People’s Assn. for Friendship with Foreign Countries.
The itinerary is patterned after 1972, with visits to Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai and obligatory stops at all the landmarks: Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People and, of course, the Great Wall.
The delegation of more than 40 people includes former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane and Cox’s wife, a striking blond supermarket heiress, Andrea Catsimatidis, who has attracted the most attention from Chinese.
Only one member of the delegation had been on the original 1972 trip: Jack Brennan, a retired Marine Corps colonel, who became Nixon’s chief of staff after his resignation.
“It feels like this country has advanced a couple of centuries,” said Brennan. “In 1972, there was just a small landing strip for the airport. When we drove in, we hardly saw any people and only a few Soviet-made cars .... When it snowed, instead of snowplows there were hundreds and hundreds of Chinese sweeping the streets with brooms.”
To some extent, the current trip is designed to burnish Nixon’s legacy. There is no place better to do it than China, where the president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal is a mere footnote to his role in opening this country to the world.
The trip could also prove a boon to Cox’s political career; he ran unsuccessfully in 2010 in the Republican primary for a New York congressional seat.
Cox is something of an old China hand, he notes, having first tasted Peking duck as an 18-year-old at the Great Hall of the People, where the wife of a prominent political figure cooked the meal herself. Working in private equity with a specialty in environmental technology, he travels frequently to China to raise money and to help U.S. companies break into the market.
The Nixon connection, he acknowleges, opens doors.
“People usually figure it out when we exchange business cards, and it is definitely an icebreaker,” said Cox. “But beyond that you still have to bring something to the table and live on your wit.”