Nixon went to China — and Maryland followed


2012 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, a diplomatic triumph that realigned American foreign policy. Since Nixon's trip, U.S.-China relations have been managed from the uppermost echelons of the executive branch of the federal government. Yet they have also been sustained and strengthened at the state and local level, as evidenced by Maryland's China diplomacy.

Forty years ago this month, Maryland began its engagement with China by becoming the site of an iconic exchange in sports diplomacy, a groundbreaking ping-pong match between China and the U.S. The event was held at theUniversity of Maryland, College Parkon April 17, 1972, less than two months after President Nixon's return from China.

Sitting in the stands in Cole Field House to watch the visiting Chinese delegation play a team of University of Maryland students was the president's daughter, Tricia Nixon; Richard Solomon, a China scholar and future assistant secretary of state for East Asia Pacific affairs; and Robert Hormats, a Baltimore native and current under secretary of state who was then an economic advisor to national security advisor Henry Kissinger.

The University of Maryland's role in the celebrated milestone of "ping pong diplomacy" signaled the state's early emergence as a pioneer in the promotion of burgeoning U.S.-China ties. Then-Gov. Harry Hughes, who assumed office less than three weeks after the official normalization of relations in 1979, adroitly focused on building ties with China as one of his first initiatives.

Working with University of Maryland president John Toll, Mr. Hughes became in 1980 the first U.S. governor to visit China. Together with Chinese Vice-Premier Wan Li, he forged the first U.S.-China sister-state agreement, linking Maryland andChina'sAnhui province.

While the trail to China blazed by Messrs. Hughes and Toll would eventually be followed by governors and university administrators from across the U.S., the world's most populous nation remained an enigma to most American state and local officials in the years immediately following their trip. When Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer traveled to Xiamen in 1985 and subsequently hosted Xiamen's mayor in Maryland, he made the state's largest urban center one of America's first cities to establish U.S.-China sister-city agreements.

Governor Hughes and Mayor Schaefer used their visits to presciently focus on economic cooperation decades before it would be propelled to the forefront of U.S.-China relations. Since 1994, the Maryland-China Business Council, based in Bethesda, has continued efforts to advance business ties. In 1996, Maryland became the first state to open a trade and investment office in China, currently based in Shanghai and Beijing. And in 2009, Maryland's flagship university and the state's Department of Business and Economic Development launched the Maryland International Incubator, designed to help international technology companies, including Chinese firms, enter U.S. markets. They have helped Maryland to become home to headquarters of 13 Chinese companies and to make China the state's second-largest trading partner.

Maryland's institutions of higher education have also developed opportunities with China. Since 1984, the Johns Hopkins University has operated a campus in Nanjing, the first permanent presence of an American university in mainland China. In 1996, the University of Maryland launched the Maryland China Initiative, the first and only university-based training institute exclusively for Chinese midlevel government officials in the U.S. (While leading English classes there during my own graduate studies, I discovered that one student was deputy mayor of Pudong, Shanghai's financial district that I had visited several years earlier). Among its recent graduates is the current mayor of Yangzhou, a city in eastern China with a population of more than 4 million.

In 2010, the University of Maryland welcomed its first Chinese-American president, Wallace Loh, a fluent Mandarin speaker born in Shanghai. In 2011, on the 30th anniversary of the Maryland-Anhui sister-state agreement, Mr. Loh joined a trade mission to China led by Gov.Martin O'Malley.

Governor O'Malley's and President Loh's efforts represent a continuation of their predecessors' commitment to advancing the U.S.-China relationship, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called "as consequential and multifaceted as any in the world." The unique initiatives of Maryland's past and present leaders and its public and private institutions over the past 40 years constitute a crucial component of America's diplomatic engagement with China. These unprecedented and unparalleled contributions, enriching millions of lives in both countries, demonstrate how statecraft at all levels of government can play a transformative role in advancing American foreign policy.

Rennie A. Silva is a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of State and a University of Maryland alumnus. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government. His email is

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