Forty years ago this month, 3,000 cases of Coca-Cola arrived in Beijing and Guangzhou from Hong Kong by train, marking a long-awaited return of the iconic U.S. beverage to the Chinese mainland.
The shipment came immediately after the People's Republic of China and the United States established diplomatic relations on Jan. 1, 1979, a historical event that has changed the political and economic landscape of the world over the past four decades.
"Psychologically, we had been ready for the moment for a long time," said Zhang Jiantao, vice president of Coca-Cola Greater China, Republic of Korea, and Mongolia. "For a multinational company like Coca-Cola, it was impossible not to explore the Chinese market. It was not a question of if, but how to return to the mainland."
Being the first U.S. company to enter the Chinese mainland after 1979, Coca-Cola has prided itself in taking the lead in serving the vast number of Chinese consumers and eventually developing the country into its third largest market globally, said Zhang.
With strong complementarity, China and the U.S. have forged deeply-intertwined economic and trade ties over the past four decades, benefiting businesses and people from both sides.
"Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China and the U.S. have both benefited greatly from their cooperation. It is a truly win-win outcome," said Chen Dongxiao, President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, citing that China has become the world's second largest economy and the GDP per capita of the U.S. has also grown to nearly 60,000 U.S. dollars.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
On Feb. 21, 1972, then U.S. President Richard Nixon touched down in Beijing for a historic visit to China, opening what he called a "week that changed the world."
On Feb. 28, the last day of the trip, China and the U.S. released the Shanghai Communique, laying the foundation for the two countries to establish diplomatic ties.
In the Grand Hall of Jin Jiang Hotel in Shanghai, where the communique was released, a photo of Nixon and then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai drinking a toast has been displayed on a wall to commemorate the historical event.
In a book about the history of the iconic Shanghai hotel, former employees recounted how they put in great efforts and went to great lengths to ensure Nixon's stay in the hotel was a success.
"In 1972, the Chinese staff, including waiters, doormen, and cooks, were shy and curious about the guests from the other side of the Pacific," said former Jin Jiang employee Qiu Huanxi. "We later found the U.S. staff shared almost the same mentality."
"The ice-breaking visit helped the two countries get to know each other, clear up misunderstandings and open up further, and this was good for the two peoples," Qiu said.
Cheng Ronggen, now vice president of Jin Jiang Premier Hotels, was a resident manager of Jin Jiang for more than two decades and oversaw many VIPs' stays in the hotel.
"Former U.S. presidents including Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W.H. Bush have all visited Jin Jiang because as Nixon commented in his later visit, this is 'where the U.S.-China relationship started,'" Cheng said.
U.S. legal expert and educator Jeffrey Lehman was in law school when he heard the news that the U.S. and China were establishing diplomatic relations forty years ago.
"This was front-page news in all the newspapers. We all knew that this was a momentous event for the United States," he said.
What left a deeper impression on Lehman was Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States later in January 1979, during which he and Jimmy Carter met and had dinner at the White House.
"They each spoke with deep emotion about the significance of the event and a form of cooperation that was going to benefit the entire world," Lehman said. "It was very inspiring for all of us."
In his opinion, the event in 1979 accelerated cooperation between the two countries dramatically and led to the reintegration of the global economy and a true system of cultural exchange.
As vice chancellor of Shanghai New York University (NYU Shanghai) for over six years, Lehman is now in the front row to witness the robust cooperation between the two countries in education and people-to-people exchange.
"We are the first Sino-American joint university. From the beginning, the thought was that we would be creating a new kind of university through cooperation," said Lehman, adding that NYU Shanghai aims to prepare students who can be effective working in multi-cultural teams for a future world.
NYU Shanghai now has 1,300 undergraduate and graduate students, about half of whom are from China. Students from the U.S. and some 70 other countries represent the other half.
"The establishment of NYU Shanghai has provided a platform for greater cooperation between China and the U.S. in people-to-people exchange," said Yu Lizhong, chancellor of NYU Shanghai. "Young people's attitudes toward a health Sino-U.S. relationship will have a lasting impact on our shared future."
Summing up forty years of diplomatic ties between the People's Republic of China and the U.S., Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in September 2018 that the most important experience gained by the two sides is that only through cooperation can a win-win situation be attained, and confrontation will certainly lead to a lose-lose scenario.
China-U.S. interaction has gone through its share of ups and downs, growing into one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Experts say such an engagement has proved capable of navigating rough waters and moving forward.
"The two countries are different. We have different cultures, interests, and agendas. However, despite our differences, we can still enjoy the benefits of healthy curiosity and mutual benefit," Lehman said.
"The idea is not to be united and identical, but to be united and different, with mutual respect," he added.
Chen believes that although there were times of tension between the two sides in forty years of Sino-U.S. relations, it was the foresight and sagacity of statesmen from both countries that helped the relationship move forward.
"If it were not for the strategic resolve of leaders of both countries, there would have been more difficulties in the relationship over the years," said Chen.
"It all boils down to the reason why the two countries established diplomatic relations 40 years ago," said Chen. "Leaders of both countries felt a stared sense of responsibilities that great nations should shoulder."