The word plastic pops up again and again in American statements about China from that era. China is “plastic” in the hands of “strong and capable Westerners,” announced President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. “China has become plastic after centuries of rigid conventionalism,”declared Selskar M. Gunn, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in May 1933.
Then came the Cold War, and instead of changing China, Americans sought to quarantine it. Fear of China in the United States was at a fever pitch in the years following the Korean War as Chinese were portrayed in American films, magazines, and books as possessing magical powers to brainwash average Americans. U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions on China were far more onerous than they were on the Soviet Union. After a while, the impracticability of such isolation became pretty obvious. Even Frank Sinatra weighed in during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1963, calling for “Red China” to be given a seat in the United Nations. “I don’t happen to think you can kick 800,000,000 Chinese under the rug and simply pretend that they don’t exist,” Sinatra declared.