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NPR & WBUR’s Here & Now presents The Great Wager

How Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made friends with China 50 years ago — and how it’s all falling apart. (Photo illustration/Special to WBUR)
How Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made friends with China 50 years ago — and how it’s all falling apart. (Photo illustration/Special to WBUR)
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With money, power and political standing at stake, America’s relationship with China is tenuous. The Great Wager, a new podcast and broadcast series from NPR & WBUR’s Here & Now, reveals how the connection between the world’s two largest economies emerged from an extraordinary encounter 50 years ago. An encounter that was engineered by a pair of secretive, self-serving, and yet forward-looking leaders: American president Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, the chairman of China's Communist Party.

Hosted by New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning foreign correspondent Jane Perlez and Here & Now co-host Scott Tong, the former Marketplace China bureau chief, The Great Wager peels back the curtain on Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972, with surprising details about what happened before, during and afterwards — including off-the-books meetings, divulged military secrets, spies, subterfuge, and a never-before reported secret visit to the CIA headquarters where the Chinese were shown maps of where spy stations would be located in China.

This is the biggest geopolitical story of our time, even bigger than everything with Russia. We’ve spoken to high-ranking officials about never before publicly confirmed details until now and uncovered exclusive new information that I’m eager to share.

Jane Perlez

The series begins in 1969 as Nixon takes office. The Great Wager brings listeners into the White House with Nixon and Kissinger and offers interviews with key players such as Robert Gates, later the Defense Secretary, and Jon Huntsman, former American Ambassador to China. Episodes include:

Episode 1, Nixon’s Crazy Idea: President Richard Nixon wants to meet with China’s Communist dictator, Mao Zedong, and open up relations, surmising that a friendship with China will help keep the United States’ archrival, the Soviet Union, in check. The problem? The U.S. and China have had almost zero contact for two decades.

Episode 2, Plots and Private Planes: Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger make contact with China. But in the midst of the Cold War, they don’t want anyone to know. How will Henry Kissinger get to Beijing without alerting anyone…and what’s Frank Sinatra got to do with it?

Episode 3, Grip and Grin: President Nixon is going to China. The news is public, and he’s getting credit for pulling off such an historic event. Now, he and his advisers have to work with the Chinese to forge a relationship between two very different countries.

Episode 4, Shared Secrets: The relationship between China and the U.S. is off-and-running – and now the two countries are collaborating on secret, sensitive intelligence. This installment includes exclusive information about how Chinese and American intel officials agreed to work together against their common rival of many years.

Episode 5, The Break-Up: All of a sudden, it’s less clear if Nixon’s wager is paying off. After years of collaboration and mutual economic benefit, relations between China and the U.S. are at a low point. What does the start of this important relationship reveal about its next chapter?

The Great Wager seeks to highlight the obsessive secrecy, global stakes and individual self-interest surrounding the Nixon-Mao visit. As we know, this proved a critical moment in the Cold War and the economic emergence of China. This podcast and radio series comes at a critical time: US-China relations are fraying, Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics, and Xi Jinping is on the verge of a third term in power this fall.

Scott Tong

The Great Wager is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. “This timely series aligns with goals of the Foundation’s Asia Program to strengthen and support the generation of knowledge, expertise, capacity and resources on Asia and to increase understanding and build trust between Americans and Asians in order to promote peace,” said Helena Kolenda, Program Director for Asia at the Henry Luce Foundation. “Revisiting the road to normalization of Sino-U.S. ties is important for any number of reasons, and we are encouraged that the series will also link this history to the current strained state of relations and implications for the future.”

The Great Wager begins on Friday, Feb. 18 during Here & Now with new episodes airing every Friday through March 18. The entire five-part series will drop in the Here & Now podcast feed on Feb. 18.

The full series, along with supporting documentation, photographs and more will be online here.

Additionally, the series will feature a free, live audience event with Tong and Perlez discussing how this historic event was turned into art with novelist Gish Jen (Thank You, Mr. Nixon) and director Peter Sellars (Nixon in China, The MET Opera). Tickets for the event, presented by WBUR CitySpace on February 24, are available here.


About Here & Now

Here & Now is a co-production from NPR and WBUR. The daily newsmagazine airs live, weekdays from 12 p.m. - 2 p.m. ET, and reaches an estimated 5 million weekly listeners on nearly 500 NPR stations nationwide.

About Jane Perlez

Jane Perlez. (Shorenstein Fellowship)
Jane Perlez. (Shorenstein Fellowship)

Jane Perlez is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs — a research center located within the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University — and most recently the China bureau chief for The New York Times. A long-time foreign correspondent for The NYTimes, she’s also reported from East Africa, Central Europe, Southeast Asia and Pakistan. She was a member of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perlez, who began reporting in China for The New York Times in late 2011 and was named Beijing bureau chief in 2016, has filed hundreds of stories on China’s foreign policy and led a newsroom of reporters, researchers, interpreters and editors. Her first visit to China was in 1967 as a university student, and she described her experience spanning the decades in an essay for the book, “The Beijing Bureau,” chronicling China’s evolution.

About Scott Tong

Scott Tong. (Liz Linder)
Scott Tong. (Liz Linder)

Scott Tong joined Here & Now as co-host in July 2021. Before that, he was a senior correspondent at Marketplace and has reported from more than a dozen countries — from refugee camps in East Africa to shoe factories in eastern China. He was the China bureau chief based in Shanghai for Marketplace from 2006 until 2010. A highly-regarded public speaker and author, Tong has appeared on the PBS NewsHour, at the Aspen Ideas Festival and at TEDxFoggyBottom. He's been a guest host of the Make Me Smart podcast and KQED's Forum. In 2017, he published A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World — a critically-acclaimed narrative nonfiction account of China's economic opening, told through the lives of five people across five generations in his own family.

About the Henry Luce Foundation

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., the Luce Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy.


The Great Wager series collage artwork is created by WBUR. Images used are from www.archives.gov, www.alamy.com and www.istock.comPhoto credits: iStock.com: mphillips007/ Ensup / bndart / traveler1116 / sinopics / andDraw / Kateywhat. alamy.com: The Color Archives / Shim Harno / 360b / INTERFOTO. National Archives: 194412 / 194759

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