In 1985, James Mann, then a Los Angeles Times correspondent covering China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, made arrangements to go to Dalian, deep in the Chinese provinces, to visit a man he’d met on the streets of Beijing who had opened his own photo store. The man was “a perfect example of how China was opening to private business,” Mann thought. Mann phoned in his hotel and plane reservations but saw no reason to tell the authorities of his upcoming visit. When he got off the plane, however, a welcoming committee from the city government stood waiting for him.

“‘Welcome to our fine city,’ they said. ‘We understand you want to meet our famous private entrepreneur, so we’ve made arrangements for you to do that,’” recalls Mann. “I say this as a way of stating the obvious, which is that our phone and other people’s phones were all tapped.”

At least the trip to Dalian got Mann out of the Western ghetto in Beijing, where he was “one of only a handful of correspondents trying to cover 1.3 billion people.” The potential for inbred reporting was and remains high. “There is a tremendous contrast,” Mann says, “between what the central government wanted and what the provinces wanted, and between their stated objectives and the reality.”

However, Mann’s new book, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (Knopf), focuses less on China’s internal inconsistencies than on the diplomatic relationship between the two superpowers. New reporting by Mann, and a cache of documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, makes for revelations large and small.

Among his bigger discoveries is that Carter and Reagan administration officials “found themselves rummaging through old archives, trying to figure out what their predecessors had promised China and what they hadn’t.” The Chinese, he found, took advantage of Americans’ change of leadership every four or eight years: “They sometimes told new administrations they had been secretly promised more than they actually had.” More mundane, but equally intriguing, were the Zen-like notes scribbled by then-President Nixon in advance of his pivotal 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong. They read, in part: “Treat him (as emperor). 1. Don’t quarrell [sic]. 2. Don’t praise him (too much). 3. Praise the people art, ancient. 4. Praise poems. 5. Love of country.”

Mann, 52, wrote one previous book, Beijing Jeep, about American efforts to build Jeeps in China. When egged on, Mann now a Washington-based foreign policy columnist for the Times doesn’t pass up a chance to play pundit. On the political front, “the assumption that’s prevalent now that is that China will inevitably democratize over the next 25 years,” he says. “I don’t see anything inevitable about it. So in that sense, I’m a pessimist.”

— Louis Jacobson