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A secret trip by Henry Kissinger grew into a half-century-long relationship with China

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BEIJING (AP) — Official China called Henry Kissinger “an old friend.” A commentator likened him to a giant panda, a goodwill ambassador between two countries that have been at odds more often than not over the decades.

Kissinger, who died Wednesday, developed a special relationship with China in the second half of his 100-year-long life. It started with a secret trip in 1971, when he feigned illness while at a meeting in Pakistan and flew undercover to Beijing for unprecedented talks that led to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit the next year.

For that act, he is remembered positively in China as an envoy who was willing to overlook ideological differences at the height of the Cold War and to engineer a rapprochement that over time brought communist-ruled China fully back into the family of nations. Many Chinese people mourned Kissinger’s death on social media.

“This is one of the main reasons for him to be revered,” Zhao Minghao, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said. “He helped Nixon open China’s door and promoted a thaw in China-U.S. relations.”

The willingness to overlook differences took on renewed importance in recent years as U.S.-China relations frayed and attacks on China mounted from both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Kissinger made more than 100 trips to China, according to the Chinese government, and was welcomed as an American it could talk to; as recently as July, he was met by China’s leader Xi Jinping.

“At present, there is no one in the U.S. who can have frank, face-to-face talks with the highest Chinese leader, who understands China and who can be the next ‘giant panda,’” commentator Shi Shusi said, likening Kissinger to the animal that has become an international symbol of Chinese diplomacy.

“He was the giant panda the U.S. sent to China — rare and friendly,” Shi said. “Since the U.S. doesn’t have such an animal, Kissinger played giant panda.”

An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper called Kissinger’s death “a tremendous loss for China-U.S. relations.” It criticized the current direction of U.S. policy toward China under the headline: “May there be successors to Henry Kissinger in the U.S.”

Over the years, Kissinger met every top leader of communist China, from founder Mao Zedong to economic reformer Deng Xiaoping and Presidents Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi.

Following the Chinese military crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Kissinger met Jiang three times between 1989 and 1991 as China worked to mend its relations with the United States.

Wang Jisi, an international relations scholar, wrote last month that Kissinger had played a role in the release of Harry Wu, a Chinese American rights advocate detained by Beijing in 1995. According to Wang, Kissinger downplayed Wu’s importance and said it would not be worthwhile for U.S.-China relations to sour over one person. China deported Wu soon after.

“The role for people like Kissinger is not to advise the government but use their own wisdom, connections and experience to serve the long-term interests of their country by shuttling among the politicians and businesspeople of different countries,” Wang said in an article posted on the official news site of Peking University.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Chinese officials in Beijing in June, said he sought Kissinger’s advice when he “was traveling to China more than 50 years after his transformative trip.”

Kissinger’s meetings with China’s leaders made the top headlines in state media, contributing to his fame among the general public, said Zhang Feng, a former journalist who is a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York.

His realpolitik approach resonated with many Chinese, who admired his ability to set aside values and negotiate back and forth among several countries with ease, Zhang said.

Then-Defense Minister Li Shangfu met with Kissinger on his July trip to Beijing — after turning down a request to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in the spring. Xi hosted the elder statesman at Villa No. 5 of the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where Kissinger had met then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai more than 50 years ago.

The 1971 trip to Beijing was a risky one for both the Chinese and U.S. governments. They were on opposite sides of the Cold War, and the U.S. officially recognized a Taiwan-based administration as the government for all of China.

Kissinger, who was national security advisor at the time and later secretary of state, held ultimately successful talks with Zhou that paved the way for Nixon’s visit.

“We never forget our old friends, nor your historic contributions to promoting the growth of China-U.S. relations and enhancing friendship between the two peoples,” Xi told his 100-year-old friend.

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Tang reported from Washington. Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

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