(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao unless otherwise stated.)
In 1972, the US and China — diametrically opposed in terms of ideology and diplomacy — did all they could to build a partnership against the Soviet Union. Through the careful planning of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, from “ping pong diplomacy” to frequent visits, US President Richard Nixon visited China and the Shanghai Communique was signed, and relations were normalised.
The photo of Nixon smiling on the Great Wall became de rigeur for the US presidents that followed, to show friendly relations between China and the US. Both countries had fought in the Korean War for three years since 1950, followed by the Cold War that lasted over 20 years — for these two ideologically mismatched adversaries to suddenly smile and embrace each other signalled a change in the international political situation, as well as how they saw each other, which involved some explanation by both leaders.
The US government told the people that growing friendly contact with China was the way to reach the Chinese people and create change in China. The Chinese government did not provide ideological justification for the change in policy, but merely propagated the Soviet military threat. However, the Chinese people, exhausted by the Cultural Revolution, saw the affluence and prosperity of the US as opposed to their own poverty and oppression, and they felt a natural desire for the US. In this sense, the US government’s narrative to the people was not wrong.
The US, a young country loved by the Chinese
The next question is, how close a match can China and the US be in terms of ideology, political systems, economic systems, social structure, cultural education, even leisure? Perhaps some answers can be found in their bilateral relationship over the past 100 years.
The US is a very young country. The general impression of Americans is that they are lively, happy, optimistic and ambitious. In the process of opening up the New World, the US took in many immigrants — the US government itself is made up of immigrants. It is like a young person, inexperienced and also unburdened.
The US has a large land area and rich resources, and welcomes people from all over the world. But while the US is culturally inclusive, its current territory came about through military expansion. Not only did the US win every war it was involved in before World War II, it saw a lot of military and economic gains. In that sense, US nationhood also carries a dimension of Western imperialism and colonialism, where it interferes with other countries’ domestic politics and expands through military measures.
The fact is, the earliest diplomacy between the US and China had the US as one of the Western colonists. Following the two Opium Wars, the US also rode on the strength of the West and gained special privileges by signing unequal treaties with China. During the Boxer Rebellion, the US gained significant reparations as one of the Eight-Nation Alliance. However, it showed more kindness and generosity than the other powers — it returned the reparations and set up an education fund to nurture a new generation of Chinese talents, which had a profound and positive impact on China-US friendship on the ground.
As for the Chinese people, they always had a good impression of the US. Many workers from Fujian and Guangdong were recruited to build the Pacific Railroad in the US, and after the project ended, they flocked to cities on the east and west coasts, working low-level jobs like running laundromats, small eateries and grocery stores. Even as white Americans called them dirty, backward, idol-worshipping pagans, they worked tirelessly and saved every hard-earned penny. They started to buy homes and gave the next generation a good education, eventually returning to their hometowns covered in riches.
Hardworking Chinese a threat
The determination and capability of the Chinese in changing their state of poverty and social status impressed the white Americans. While some called Chinese “cheap labour”, “thieves of technology” and other derogatory terms, and even sought to weaken the competitiveness of Chinese in the US through Congressional law, the US elites who understood China looked at China’s long history and saw the industry and competitiveness of the Chinese, which the mighty US would have to face in the end.
If the Chinese in the US could raise their economic status to the level of mainstream white society within three generations, what would it mean for the US when the entire Chinese economy rose, and when the Chinese population outnumbered the US four to one? That was the issue the US would eventually have to face, and possibly the ultimate issue in China-US relations.
From the late Qing dynasty to the establishment of the republic, the people of China looked up to the US as a model of learning. The Qing government previously sent young students to the US to learn, and it was also common for the rich to send their children to study in the US. Soong Ching-ling (the wife of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the republic) and her sister Soong Mei-ling (the wife of second-generation Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek) grew up and went to school in the US. They brought American thinking and even religion to China’s leadership, and the Chinese felt positive about the US.
While the US government supported China against Japanese invasion, that support came later than Germany and the Soviet Union. But the American public, from the media to religious groups to charity organisations, were generous with their sympathy and assistance for the Chinese who were suffering under invasion.
Before WWII, with the diplomatic tensions between the US and Japan, especially after the establishment of the Axis powers, the US government’s assistance to China became more active and public. After WWII, China and the US became military allies. Following Pearl Harbour, the US carried out the first Doolittle Raid on Japan, where bombers landed in China after their mission and surviving US pilots were escorted to Chongqing by Chinese guerilla fighters.
The Flying Tigers led by General Claire Lee Chennault did their part in China-US cooperation in the war, while KMT general Sun Li-jen — who rescued British troops in Myanmar — was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute who exemplified the fierce American fighting spirit. These moving stories are recorded in the histories of China and the US, and are deeply embedded in the memories of the Chinese and Americans; even the Chinese Communist Party embraces these shared memories. To this day, mention this chapter in history, and it immediately calls up a historical bond and camaraderie.
Dawning of the capitalist and communist divide
Even so, in 1949, the pro-US KMT government lost in the civil war, and communist China was born. And not just China — after WWII, the world was divided into capitalist and communist camps.
... the religious element and severe class struggle in communism was a major contradiction to the spirit of moderation in traditional Confucianism.
Many academics often examine which parts of communism are in line with or contradict traditional Chinese culture. The CCP came to power through the civil revolution, spreading the idea of an equal and perfect society, which is in line with the Chinese people’s pursuit of equal distribution of wealth. However, the religious element and severe class struggle in communism was a major contradiction to the spirit of moderation in traditional Confucianism. And so, the theoretical core of communism goes against traditional Chinese culture. Furthermore, traditional Chinese society has a culture of entrepreneurship, which contradicts the communist rejection of the pursuit of profit.
To put it simply, the Chinese do not need a revolution to eliminate communism, but can gradually return to the fundamentals of Chinese culture through natural social evolution, so that communism remains only in name.
A different social culture
Nevertheless, China and the US each developed their own social culture. The Americans focus on personal freedom and think it takes priority over everything else; the Chinese focus on collectivism and feel that without it there can be no personal freedom, and they came up with this law of survival through thousands of years of history between prosperity and war.
Communism is an extreme form of Chinese collectivism, but even without it, the political and social awareness of Chinese collectivism would still exist, including the theory and discipline behind collectivism as well as the equality in social distribution that comes with it, as well as the development of a China-style system of political representation.
The Americans would feel that China-style collectivism and governance would not work in the US; the Chinese would also feel that the super high college education fees, medical fees and litigation fees caused by US-style capitalism and individualism would also not work in China.
After China-US relations normalised in 1979, bilateral exchanges and growth went smoothly. The KMT government in Taiwan also held that Taiwan and mainland China were one, and so the CCP was not worried about losing Taiwan and was willing to wait patiently for reunification, so China-US relations saw little hindrance from the Taiwan issue.
Even when the US imposed sanctions on China following the Tiananmen incident, and when China-US relations saw some turbulence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the general situation did not deviate from the assumptions of US policy towards China — engaging China for major economic gains for the US, and to get the Chinese to be more like Americans, to bring about long-term friendship and peace with common values and interests.
In the 30 years or so from Deng Xiaoping restarting the reform policy with his Southern Tour of 1992, to about 2010, US-China relations were generally in line with the US’s policy aims, as the Chinese economy became more open and the people’s lives improved. Previously, the Chinese went to the US to study, stayed there to work after graduation, and then brought their family to the US. Later, the Chinese came with money to the US to study and no longer needed to work; and after that, they toured, spent money and bought homes in the US.
Chinese investors a threat
Right now, the Chinese are investing and starting companies in the US. From producing umbrellas, barbecue pits, Christmas decorations, refrigerators, TVs and microwave ovens, to manufacturing and developing PCs, semiconductors, mobile phones and social media, the Chinese are in direct competition with the US manufacturers. China has not only resolved the centuries-old issue of poverty, it is moving full speed towards world-class manufacturing and services technology.
... when people started speculating which year China’s economy would overtake the US, the US felt uneasy.
In the 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, while the US government had no time for anything besides anti-terrorism, China’s economy grew exponentially to become second only to the US. Each side got what they needed from bilateral exchanges, which were generally amiable. But then China’s economy got too big — when people started speculating which year China’s economy would overtake the US, the US felt uneasy. After WWII, for the first time Americans felt they might lose their place as the world’s leading economy.
China a tougher foe than Japan
In the 1980s, the Americans felt threatened that Japan’s economy was catching up to the US, and implemented a slew of policies to contain Japan. However, the challenge from China is very different. First, China is much larger than Japan in terms of land size and population. Second, China’s civil war left it with the issue of Taiwan, an internal wound for China; especially since after 70 years, Taiwan is seeing political changes and independence has become a formal option and a bargaining chip that the US can use to balance China.
Thus appeared a trigger for all-out conflict between China and the US. Some US experts often stress the need to provide weapons to Taiwan so that China knows that a military solution will come with a “heavy price”. The problem is, if China sees the US supporting Taiwan independence and that it might lose territorial sovereignty, that would dredge up painful memories of colonial invasion, and any Chinese ruler would not only be willing to pay a heavy price but “any price”, including having no choice but to go to war with the US.
China cannot become another US, nor does it need to.
As China’s economy grew, it built up its military strength to protect its economic interests, and called for more international political power to match its economic status. The US criticised China for becoming more “aggressive”, but this was a natural consequence of a country getting economically stronger; the US itself went through this. The fact is, over the past 100 years, the US has started far more wars than China has.
Can the US make room for China?
Finally, the key to China-US relations still lies in whether the US is able to recognise the cultural differences between both countries, and see that China has a long history and decides on its path according to its own experiences. China cannot become another US, nor does it need to. More importantly, it is a question of whether the US can be objective about China recovering its place as a major power, and accept the fact that the US no longer has a monopoly on global politics and economy, and adjust its mindset.
When the US asks China to “follow international rules” that are set by the West, and says China has to obey, and China is not allowed to adjust the rules even based on its contribution to the global economy and security, of course China would create another non-Western dominated international framework, and of course China-US conflict is inevitable.
On China’s part, it just needs to remain patient and steady, and not move impulsively.
On China’s part, it just needs to remain patient and steady, and not move impulsively. The US will see that conflict goes against its own interests and gradually accept the new global situation, and create a new balance between China and the US. This will take effort from both sides, and it will be the most important chapter in human history.
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