This evening, the virtual Eton College community was awoken from the driving rain of an English evening by a fascinating History Society meeting. We heard from the Provost about his meeting with Chairman Mao in 1974, and were fortunate to discover a first-hand account of the period of détente that marked China’s improving relationship with America in the 1970s.
The Provost took us back first to 1949, when China and Russia were often perceived as mutually supportive Soviet nations. However the tension between them left China increasingly vulnerable and encircled by the early 1970s. Indeed, as the Provost pointed out, in China’s eyes there was a direct link between the inequitable treatment meted out by European colonial powers in the 19th Century and the new threat posed to them by a hostile USSR on their border in the Twentieth Century.
In contrast to America, the Provost explained, Britain adopted a more “mature” perspective on its relationship with the PRC in this period of Sino-Soviet tension. Recognising the opportunity to re-open relations with China, Ted Heath, the former Prime Minister, took up the chance to visit in 1974. Armed with “flared trousers and Bob Dylan-like hair”, the Provost accompanied Heath on his expedition as his political secretary, attending a plethora of “rich and delicious banquets”.
With wry humour the Provost described how, despite being “bedraggled and slightly hung over”, he entered Chairman Mao’s room in the Forbidden City and experienced a “firm handshake” and a startled reaction to his appearance!
We thank the Provost for his captivating personal account on such an intriguing period of history.