The China Card

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Fresh out of law school, Matt Thompson goes to work for Richard Nixon’s New York law firm and is drafted to aid the senior partner in his bid for the Presidency.

In Red China, Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution has been an economic disaster and now the Russians are threatening invasion. Chou En-lai, the master politician, wants a rapprochement with the United States but cannot make direct overtures. Foreseeing that Nixon will win the election, Chou lures Matt to Peking through an old Chinese friend of Matt’s father and enlists the youth’s confidential support.

Matt lived in China as a child and speaks Mandarin. His contacts with Chou via a Hong Kong connection enable him to make amazing “predictions” which lead to his becoming Nixon’s China expert. When Nixon wins, Matt becomes a White House aide in a position to exert strong influence on the President’s Far East policy. As a highly eligible bachelor, Matt is carrying on two love affairs at home, but he has lost his heart to a shy Chinese virgin on Chou’s staff.

Having made the mistake of accepting devious Chou’s gift of an emerald worth $140,000, the naive and well-intentioned Matt finds himself trapped in a web of high-level intrigue, facing disgrace and imprisonment as a spy.

This book is competently written and full of intriguing insider observations. The mixture of fact and fiction, reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels, is at times confusing and occasionally hard to swallow. The choicest morsels are the cynical, often amusing portraits of powerful figures such as Nixon and Henry Kissinger. John Ehrlichman, who served eighteen months in federal prison for his part in Watergate, obviously has no love for his former White House superiors. He has the narcissistic Kissinger characterize Nixon as a “tower of jelly,” and, in another place, when describing the installation of the new President, writes, “Before long, framed pictures of Richard Nixon would abound all over the building, like toads after a rain.”