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A History of China and U.S. Leaders Meeting Through The Years

  • Former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant meets with Li Hongzhang, who was then Governor General of Zhili (roughly, modern day Hebei province), in Tianjin, 1879. Both men had led their countries in suppressing rebellion (Grant as the Commanding General of the United States Army in the Civil War, and Li played a key role in the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion). In 1875, Li had led a coup that made him one of the most powerful men in the Qing court, as well as its top diplomat and the de facto leader of its military. (Photo by See Tay/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
    Former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant meets with Li Hongzhang, who was then Governor General of Zhili (roughly, modern day Hebei province), in Tianjin, 1879. Both men had led their countries in suppressing rebellion (Grant as the Commanding General of the United States Army in the Civil War, and Li played a key role in the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion). In 1875, Li had led a coup that made him one of the most powerful men in the Qing court, as well as its top diplomat and the de facto leader of its military. (Photo by See Tay/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
  • Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill in Cairo in late 1943. The purpose of the “Cairo Conference” was for the Allies to coordinate their responses to Japan in World War II. In a press release after the meeting, China was included as one of four “Great Powers” (Russia was the fourth), and Britain and the U.S. agreed that territories of China that Japan had taken—including Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Pescadores—would be returned to China when the war ended. Two years later, when Roosevelt and Churchill met in Yalta with Stalin to work out the architecture of postwar Europe they did not invite Chiang. (Wikimedia photo)
    Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill in Cairo in late 1943. The purpose of the “Cairo Conference” was for the Allies to coordinate their responses to Japan in World War II. In a press release after the meeting, China was included as one of four “Great Powers” (Russia was the fourth), and Britain and the U.S. agreed that territories of China that Japan had taken—including Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Pescadores—would be returned to China when the war ended. Two years later, when Roosevelt and Churchill met in Yalta with Stalin to work out the architecture of postwar Europe they did not invite Chiang. (Wikimedia photo)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the White House with Soong Meiling (a.k.a. Madame Chiang Kai-shek) in February 1943. Soong came to the U.S. to rally support for China in World War II. The daughter of a prominent Shanghai businessman, Soong was educated at Wellesley, spoke fluent English, and often served as de facto ambassador for her husband. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images photo)
    Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the White House with Soong Meiling (a.k.a. Madame Chiang Kai-shek) in February 1943. Soong came to the U.S. to rally support for China in World War II. The daughter of a prominent Shanghai businessman, Soong was educated at Wellesley, spoke fluent English, and often served as de facto ambassador for her husband. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images photo)
  • U.S. President Richard Nixon toasts Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during his trip to China in February 1972. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
    U.S. President Richard Nixon toasts Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during his trip to China in February 1972. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
  • U.S. President Gerald R. Ford toasts China’s new Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping at a dinner at The Great Hall of the People on December 4, 1975 in Beijing. Ford was the second U.S. President to visit China. He met with both Deng and Mao Zedong. He had visited China three years earlier as Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
    U.S. President Gerald R. Ford toasts China’s new Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping at a dinner at The Great Hall of the People on December 4, 1975 in Beijing. Ford was the second U.S. President to visit China. He met with both Deng and Mao Zedong. He had visited China three years earlier as Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
  • Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and U.S. President Ronald Reagan walk arm in arm, as Reagan escorts Zhao to his car through the rain after a meeting at the White House on October 1, 1984. Zhao later became China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary, but he was stripped of these posts for opposing the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
    Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and U.S. President Ronald Reagan walk arm in arm, as Reagan escorts Zhao to his car through the rain after a meeting at the White House on October 1, 1984. Zhao later became China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary, but he was stripped of these posts for opposing the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
  • China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping confers with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, June 29, 1987 in Beijing, after signing an agreement between China and the Carter Center’s Global 2000 program. Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” (Photo by John Giannini/AFP/Getty Images)
    China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping confers with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, June 29, 1987 in Beijing, after signing an agreement between China and the Carter Center’s Global 2000 program. Carter won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” (Photo by John Giannini/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Mao Zedong in discussion with U.S. President Gerald Ford, in China, December 1975. Ford was the second U.S. President to visit China. (Keystone/Getty Images photo)
    Mao Zedong in discussion with U.S. President Gerald Ford, in China, December 1975. Ford was the second U.S. President to visit China. (Keystone/Getty Images photo)
  • Mao Zedong welcomes U.S. President Richard Nixon, in Beijing in February of 1972, for the first visit of a sitting U.S. President to China. The historic visit, brokered after more than a year of delicate negotiations to begin to restore relations between the two countries, took place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. Their meetings were filmed, and a ten minute segment was broadcast on Chinese national television. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
    Mao Zedong welcomes U.S. President Richard Nixon, in Beijing in February of 1972, for the first visit of a sitting U.S. President to China. The historic visit, brokered after more than a year of delicate negotiations to begin to restore relations between the two countries, took place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. Their meetings were filmed, and a ten minute segment was broadcast on Chinese national television. (AFP/Getty Images photo)
  • Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former U.S. President George Bush communicate following Jiang’s speech at the George Bush Presidential Conference Center on the campus of the Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, October 24, 2002. (Photo by Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images)
    Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former U.S. President George Bush communicate following Jiang’s speech at the George Bush Presidential Conference Center on the campus of the Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, October 24, 2002. (Photo by Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President Bill Clinton wave at the end of their joint press conference, October 29, 1997, at the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. Jiang came to power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, an event which caused tense relations between the two countries in the ensuing years. (Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)
    Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President Bill Clinton wave at the end of their joint press conference, October 29, 1997, at the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. Jiang came to power in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, an event which caused tense relations between the two countries in the ensuing years. (Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)
  • New Zealand’s Prime Minister James Bolger, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, and Financial Secretary of Hong Kong Hamish MacLeod depart for their meeting on Blake Island on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, November 20, 1993. (Photo by Therese Frare/AFP/Getty Images)
    New Zealand’s Prime Minister James Bolger, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, and Financial Secretary of Hong Kong Hamish MacLeod depart for their meeting on Blake Island on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, November 20, 1993. (Photo by Therese Frare/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and U.S. President Bill Clinton make remarks during a state dinner with First Lady Hillary Clinton, April 8, 1999, at the White House. A major goal of Zhu’s trip was to discuss the terms of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which happened in 2001. (Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)
    Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and U.S. President Bill Clinton make remarks during a state dinner with First Lady Hillary Clinton, April 8, 1999, at the White House. A major goal of Zhu’s trip was to discuss the terms of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which happened in 2001. (Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)
  • China’s President Jiang Zemin and his wife, Wang Yeping, join U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in addressing the media at Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch October 25, 2002 in Crawford, Texas. Jiang toured the Bush family ranch by truck and dined on Texas barbecue. (Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images)
    China’s President Jiang Zemin and his wife, Wang Yeping, join U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in addressing the media at Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch October 25, 2002 in Crawford, Texas. Jiang toured the Bush family ranch by truck and dined on Texas barbecue. (Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images)
  • President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and George W. Bush chat at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi, November 19, 2006. Each year, the summit provides world leaders with an opportunity to don the traditional clothing of the host country for a “family photo.” (Photo by Kenichi Murakami/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
    President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and George W. Bush chat at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi, November 19, 2006. Each year, the summit provides world leaders with an opportunity to don the traditional clothing of the host country for a “family photo.” (Photo by Kenichi Murakami/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
  • U.S. President George W. Bush greets Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, center, and Chinese President Hu Jintao during the Security Council meeting on September 14, 2005, at the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
    U.S. President George W. Bush greets Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, center, and Chinese President Hu Jintao during the Security Council meeting on September 14, 2005, at the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
  • U.S. President George W. Bush attempts to prevent Chinese President Hu Jintao from stepping off the stage during an arrival ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House, April 20, 2006. Hu was on his first official visit to the United States since taking office in 2002. At the same ceremony, a woman in the press box unfurled a banner of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong and shouted at President Bush, “Stop this visit.” Later, the White House announcer mistakenly told the crowd they would now hear the national anthem of “The Republic of China,” the official name for Taiwan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
    U.S. President George W. Bush attempts to prevent Chinese President Hu Jintao from stepping off the stage during an arrival ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House, April 20, 2006. Hu was on his first official visit to the United States since taking office in 2002. At the same ceremony, a woman in the press box unfurled a banner of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong and shouted at President Bush, “Stop this visit.” Later, the White House announcer mistakenly told the crowd they would now hear the national anthem of “The Republic of China,” the official name for Taiwan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
  • U.S. President George W. Bush is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing on August 10, 2008. On the same visit, President Bush attended a church service and urged China’s leaders not to be afraid of religious freedom. (Photo by Guang Niu/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
    U.S. President George W. Bush is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing on August 10, 2008. On the same visit, President Bush attended a church service and urged China’s leaders not to be afraid of religious freedom. (Photo by Guang Niu/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
  • U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao after his arrival at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing on November 16, 2009. Obama arrived in Beijing from Shanghai for the second leg of his maiden state visit to China. Obama was welcomed at Beijing’s international airport by Vice President Xi Jinping (Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
    U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Chinese President Hu Jintao after his arrival at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing on November 16, 2009. Obama arrived in Beijing from Shanghai for the second leg of his maiden state visit to China. Obama was welcomed at Beijing’s international airport by Vice President Xi Jinping (Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
  • U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao following a statement to the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 17, 2009. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
    U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao following a statement to the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 17, 2009. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Chinese then Vice President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama speak during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., February 14, 2012. Obama received the Chinese leader-in-waiting following Xi’s meetings earlier in the day with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
    Chinese then Vice President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama speak during meetings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., February 14, 2012. Obama received the Chinese leader-in-waiting following Xi’s meetings earlier in the day with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

When the first U.S. President visited China, he was no longer president. Ulysses S. Grant traveled in Asia in 1879. The Qing empire was embroiled in a dispute with Japan over territorial claims to the Ryuku Islands and wanted the U.S. to mediate. Grant met with many members of the imperial court, but his most significant meeting was in Tianjin with Li Hongzhang, the powerful Viceroy of Zhili (roughly modern day Hebei province) who, after leading a coup a few years earlier, was among the most powerful statesmen in the Qing court and the de facto leader of its military. Both men had commanded an army on the winning side of a brutal civil war: while Grant was fighting the Civil War, Li helped vanquish the Taiping Rebellion. That shared past inspired Li to believe he had found a kindred spirit: “You and I, General Grant, are the greatest men in the world,” he told his guest.

China Strikes Back!

Orville Schell from New York Review of Books
When Deng Xiaoping arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington in January 1979, his country was just emerging from a long revolutionary deep freeze. No one knew much about this 5-foot-tall Chinese leader. He had suddenly reappeared on the...

It was an early high point in a relationship between the U.S. and China that has not always been so easy. Of course, countries don’t really have relationships. People do. Today, contact between the U.S. and China occurs daily, through millions of individual interactions between ordinary people. Many of these connections are far more substantial and intimate than those of our leaders. But leaders’ meetings, months in the orchestrating and crammed full of pre-negotiated outcomes and committee-written speeches, nevertheless offer the promise that somehow some of the difficulties facing these two massive places really might be soluble if the two humans sitting in adjacent arm chairs could only find a way to hit it off. Sometimes, they don’t and that promise evaporates quickly. More often we don’t really know what has gone on behind closed doors and instead try to read a story into the moments captured by photographers—of forced or natural looking smiles, the guarded tilt of a shoulder, or the hopeful crinkle of two sets of smiling eyes.

Here’s our look back at images of high-level China-U.S. encounters over the years.