A Chinese View of the U.S. and China

Fraught relations between the United States and China have a long history. Study could start with this volume, for it is an impressive labor of synthesis. In less than 250 pages of text, Dong Wang reviews more than 200 years of commercial and diplomatic history as well as the cultural and personal interchanges that have shaped attitudes on both sides of the Pacific.

The curious and energetic will value the book’s 26-page bibliography and the suggestions for further reading that close each chapter. The history itself is fascinating. But the author’s tone and perspective are steeped in values that few readers of Law and Liberty will share. This need not be a bad thing: one’s thinking is often enriched by contact with those of different mind and is never deepened by avoiding such contact. When an author’s sympathies skew the selection and presentation of relevant facts, though, a work of history requires a warning label.

The reader of The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present enters a world where America “loudly trumpets” its “values” and where American politicians, when they are not busy “trumpeting,” spend their time “crowing.” By contrast, the leaders of China, especially since 1949, are described as “firm” and “resolute.” When tensions rise, it is invariably the fault of some party other than China rather than the result of a chain of actions and reactions. This is merely an irritation; more serious are the distortions or omissions, some of which I will flag in this review.

With independence, Americans sought new opportunities for trade, and our ships brought ginseng and furs to Canton. This early commerce was, on the American side, a private enterprise. The U.S. government did not seek relations with China until the 1840s, when it moved to preserve American access after the First Opium War. Americans took no part in that war and many decried British aggression, though others—such as John Quincy Adams, in what seems a lapse of judgment—thought the war a just response to Chinese arrogance. As the United States became more industrialized and assertive, the Qing Empire decayed in the throes of internal conflict (the Taiping civil war and the Boxer Uprising) and imperialist predation (at the hands of Russia and Japan, as well as the Western powers).

Allowances must be made for any précis of a century’s worth of chaotic conflict, but on several points Professor Wang’s treatment is misleading.

  • She cites but one example of the “lack of agreed . . . legal procedures,” but incidents involving the Lady Hughes (1784), the Neptune (1807), and the Emily (1821) had shown Western merchants several times over that after any homicide (even an accidental one) implicating a foreigner, the default solution for Qing magistrates was to have a foreigner strangled, and any foreigner would do.[1] This prompted Western governments’ demand for consular jurisdiction over their citizens in China (“extraterritoriality”), which understandably became a sore point for the Chinese.
  • She suggests that the first time extraterritoriality was written into a treaty, it was by the Americans in 1844; but this concession had been obtained by the British a year earlier.
  • The United States is misrepresented as a belligerent in the Second Opium War.
  • The Boxer Uprising is presented as the work solely of the Boxer fanatics, though these were “encouraged by conservative members of the Qing court”—omitting such details as the Empress Dowager’s formal declaration of war against the Western powers and the participation of the Imperial Army.
  • America’s return of a large part of the Boxer Indemnity for scholarships is attributed to “self-interested” motives. Although the true story is not as edifying as Americans used to think (it begins with a padded expense account), it makes the United States’ treatment of China stand out in the context of the time.

Indeed, one might discern in the historical record a pattern of American exceptionalism. Professor Wang acknowledges this grudgingly. The United States “positioned itself advantageously in China” by seizing no land, discountenancing the opium trade, and (around 1900) upholding China’s territorial integrity.

This pattern continued into the 20th century, when the Washington Conference provided a supportive forum for Chinese grievances in the early 1920s and Washington was the first to recognize the Nanjing government. In 1943, the United States took the lead in abolishing extraterritoriality. The Qing statesman Zeng Guofan concluded in 1860 that Americans had a “pure and honest” nature and were “sincere and obedient in their dealings with China.”[2] But Professor Wang is not about to be taken in: she describes the Open Door as a “policy designed to exert American soft, persuasion power in an American manner.”

Perhaps her cynicism is justified, for the courtesy of American policy did not operate within our own borders. Discriminatory legislation—not only barring new immigrants but stripping residents of their legal rights—remained a blot on our history for 60 or 80 years, depending on the milestones chosen. Professor Wang barely hints that Australia and Canada had comparable legislation; even so, the American reaction to Chinese immigration is no less embarrassing for not having been unique. The restrictionists, claiming to safeguard public order, punished not rioters but their victims. During the 1880s, armed mobs visited arson and murder on Chinese communities in several states in the American West.

When reported in China, these events naturally brought an adverse reaction: at the start of the 20th century there were protests and boycotts. This is one of the book’s strongest chapters. Professor Wang tells how the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the conflict between discriminatory legislation and previously ratified treaties (the treaties, or more precisely the principle pacta sunt servanda, lost) and—to her credit—she shows how habeas corpus and an independent judiciary helped mitigate persecution.

In a sad irony, much of America’s contact with China during this era was inspired by Christian charity. Though American (mostly Protestant) missionaries came later than those from other countries, Professor Wang credits the Americans with “great energy and a strong social agenda.” They were philanthropic, though sometimes condescending. That anti-Christian resentments developed, most explosively in the Boxer Uprising of 1900, she traces to the hostility of a proud, conservative cultural establishment and to the galling legal privileges that missionaries enjoyed.

In considering the missionaries, she evinces more sympathy for the “liberal modernists” than for the “conservative fundamentalists” among them. She notes that Protestant missionaries took pains to make their congregations self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. On this basis, she credits the state-approved church (created in the first year of the People’s Republic) with the legitimacy of ecclesiastical continuity: this Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) “was not the creation of the Chinese Communist Party,” she writes, but rather it “maintains a church tradition inherited from western missionaries.” She later repeats: “The official Chinese church was the direct child of the American missions.”

I challenge this judgment.

First of all, while it is true that most of the TSPM’s leaders were influenced by American missionaries and some had studied at liberal seminaries here, the creation of the TSPM did not flow primarily from that background. The manifesto that launched the new church was written at the request of, and in consultation with, Zhou Enlai, and the TSPM founders sought a place in the new order.

Secondly, for the churches to be controlled by and beholden to an atheistic domestic political authority was no more consistent with their self-governing tradition than control by foreign missionaries would have been. Indeed, as Yihua Xu remarks, the groups that were “attacked most viciously by TSPM activists were those that had made the most significant contributions to Chinese Protestantism’s realization of the ‘three-self’ principles.”[3]

Thirdly, she passes over the fate of those who would not tailor their faith to the regime and doesn’t mention the “accusation meetings” by which churches were purged of them. She cites, with respect, Y. T. Wu’s communist adaptation of Christianity but never mentions Wang Mingdao or Watchman Nee, founders of churches with a more Evangelical understanding of their faith. Nee perished in a labor camp 20 years after being arrested; in his pocket was found a scrap of paper on which he’d penned, in a shaky hand, “I die believing in Christ.”

Back to our timeline: The Qing crumbled in 1911. Though a republic was proclaimed, the President declared himself emperor before dying and doomed China to more than a decade of contention among provincial warlords. The West plunged into its own disorder, too, and the coincidence proved fateful. Professor Wang recounts how the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson “electrified” the Chinese elite and inspired them to follow the United States into the First World War.

She does not detail China’s contribution: no troops were sent, but 140,000 Chinese laborers toiled for the British Army in France. She recounts how this involvement in Western hostilities sparked dissension at home, splitting North from South China. It had been a hard decision for a country that had long remained aloof from foreign affairs; and it was very badly rewarded. At the Peace Conference of 1919, territory that Germany had seized in the 19th century was handed over to Japan instead of being given back to China. This was the colonial powers’ price for granting Wilson his League of Nations, and he made the deal. Chinese disillusionment was intense, and Professor Wang makes a good case that China’s turn toward the Soviet model can be traced to this betrayal. How many poison trees were planted at Versailles!

In the 1920s, mobs attacked foreigners as warlords fought for power. From Russia, meanwhile, the young Soviet government gained influence on its neighbor, not only guiding the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but also forming bonds with the larger Nationalist (KMT) Party. The two teamed up to rein in the warlords in 1926, but when the KMT’s Chiang Kai-shek was ready to form a stronger government at Nanjing the next year, he drove the CCP underground. Chiang also defused tensions after a clash between his soldiers and an American gunboat, adopting a conciliatory approach to overcome the legacy of colonialism. Recognition by Washington and an improved tariff regime followed in short order.

Who can say how Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT might have fared had fate been kinder? But the Great Depression had two consequences that put the government of China (and indeed the whole of Chinese society) under grave stress.

The first was the 1931 decision of Japan, which was increasingly dominated by its military, to start plundering minerals, energy, and food from China’s three northeastern provinces (Manchuria). Chiang vacillated. Western democracies, preoccupied with the worldwide economic slump, deplored Japan’s aggression but did nothing to stop it.

The second fatal event (unmentioned in this book) was the United States’ decision in 1934 to increase its money supply by issuing silver certificates (readers of a certain age will remember these bills), for which it had to purchase massive quantities of the metal. As a result, silver more than doubled in price. China, one of the very few nations on the silver standard, suffered a rapid and ruinous deflation and a banking crisis. It soon dropped the silver standard but did not replace it with any kind of currency peg. Hyperinflation came a few years later.

In 1937, Japanese forces swept out of Manchuria to attack the North China Plain, starting a devastating war which we subsume into World War II, but which Chinese still call the War of Resistance against Japan. We may remember the struggle against the Axis Powers as having included a sideshow with fighting in China, but the Chinese—rightly—remember it differently.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States became China’s ally, but with limited effect. It was hard to send aid because: all of China’s seaports were in Japanese hands; the United States gave priority to the European theater; Chiang and his U.S. advisors detested each other; Chiang repeatedly proved incompetent, and his administration corrupt; and China was wracked by internal conflict, as the CCP expanded while the KMT bore the brunt of the Japanese war.

As early as 1944, the United States reached out to the CCP and sought to team it with the KMT in what we would today call a more inclusive government. It was futile; the mortal enemies would not share power. Nor was Chiang willing to reform his corrupt autocracy. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it took the Communists four more years to rout the Nationalists, but in Washington the recriminations—the famous question of “Who lost China?”—began early. Professor Wang’s treatment of these much-disputed events (at one point she invokes “the Rashomon effect”) is, in the main, fair and illuminating. Curiously, though, she never mentions the suspension of U.S. military aid from July 1946 to May 1947 that was meant to make Chiang more cooperative and that may have sandbagged KMT morale.

The Korean War pitted the United States and China against each other and left much bitterness. After noting that the North invaded the South on Kim Il-Sung’s initiative, Professor Wang says he had sought Stalin’s endorsement in vain. She implies that, while Mao may have agreed to the move in principle, he felt the time was not right. Perhaps she is unaware of the Soviet diplomatic telegrams, declassified in the Yeltsin years, that show Stalin and Mao giving Kim the green light for his attack; in fact Stalin made his approval contingent on Mao’s. (See, for example, this telegram from Pyongyang to Vishinsky, and also this “comrade Fillippo” telegram.)

Of the threats of war that had been spouted by the South’s Syngman Rhee, she writes disingenuously, “there is no evidence the Americans were in collusion with him.” Actually, there is evidence the Americans were trying hard to restrain him. They had greatly restricted the arms supplied to the South because they feared good weaponry would embolden Rhee to attack. This is one reason the North’s invasion, spearheaded by Russian-supplied tanks, was initially successful. Later, Professor Wang alludes to America’s “use of germ warfare” in the Korean War, a charge now known to have been fabricated with Chinese assistance.[4]

As her history enters an era within the reader’s memory, the presentation appears sometimes provocative and sometimes merely tendentious. She recounts Nixon’s 1972 visit to China with admiration and shows how the rapprochement had been pending for a long time. Nixon and Kissinger aimed to isolate the Russians geopolitically but did not expect the opening to China would have much economic impact. Dis aliter visum: within a generation the value of annual trade between the United States and China would reach half a trillion dollars, and today Russia (though not formally allied) stands together with China in opposition to many U.S. interests and values.

Though the author refers in her own voice to “American hegemony” and “the American-led crusade” that “attempted to set the ground rules for the governance of China and other parts of the world,” she describes a Chinese invasion more delicately: “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1978 triggered a Chinese reaction, and war broke out on February 17, 1979.” She manages to devote three pages to the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 (accurately describing the origin of the demonstrations) without saying that the People’s Liberation Army killed anyone; the closest she comes is the formulation, “Innocent lives were lost.” Indignation is reserved for the “hard-line response” on the part of the U.S. Congress.

She describes how the Clinton administration waffled in its China policy, without mentioning the campaign-finance scandal of 1996 in which the Chinese embassy was found to have coordinated illegal foreign donations to the Democratic National Committee. China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization receives an evaluation that will please the Chamber of Commerce: “a win-win situation for China, the United States, and the world.” Though the introduction touches on intellectual property rights, there is nothing about the massive program of technology transfer that has characterized the mandatory joint-venture model of foreign investment in China. Although Professor Wang cites statistics suggesting how much of the world’s manufacturing capability has been relocated to her country, it does not occur to her that perhaps not everyone considers this a good thing.

You can probably guess the author’s opinion of American remonstrances about violations of human rights in China. With lengthy quotes from obscure commentators, she makes sure we hear that the Dalai Lama had a drum made from human skin and that monks may have torched their own temples. She does not encumber her text, though, with the names of long-imprisoned lamas whose fate has inspired Americans’ concern. She deplores “wrangling” over “repression of the Falun Gong,” which she glosses as “an anti-government religious cult.” To Professor Wang, all of this is only “political ammunition” for “Congress, Christian lobbyists, human rights advocates, and business corporations—bodies linked by a murky enmeshment of interests.”

I think Professor Wang misidentifies the source of America’s persistent interest in human rights. She writes, for example, that “independence for Tibet . . . has remained an important component of American foreign policy.” This is demonstrably untrue. It ceased being true more than 30 years ago. Over time, the commitment of the U.S. government to human rights (especially the right of self-determination) has waned, and the business community never had any such commitment. Ordinary Americans continue to be moved by and to care about those who suffer oppression— individuals who dwell far from our shores, but whose plight is brought home to us in startling ways.

While respecting its scope, insights, and scholarly apparatus, I have tried to indicate some of this book’s limitations as a history. The United States and China can be recommended without reservation, however, as an introduction to the way many Chinese think about history. The roots of nationalism run deep, and the memory of genuine grievances has been long nurtured by the Party. But readers of this review should not imagine that Professor Wang’s perspective reflects an insular background or the undiluted impact of what is officially called Patriotic Education. Her sympathies and antipathies would be entirely at home in the faculty lounge of any American or European university—in the places, that is, where she has spent most of her working life since earning her second doctorate in Kansas.

[1] Earl H. Pritchard, “The Origin of Extraterritoriality in China,” Northwest Science, Volume 4, Issue 4 (1930).

[2] Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012), p. 173.

[3] Yihua Xu, “Patriotic Protestants,” in God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions, edited by Jason Kindopp and Carol Lee Hamrin (Brookings Institution, 2004).

[4] Kathryn Weathersby, “Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and the Allegations of Bacteriological Weapons Use in Korea,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Winter 1998 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1998), pp. 176-184; and Milton Leitenberg, “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Winter 1998 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1998), pp. 185-199.



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