[Photo story] The saga continues: 100 years of China-US relations

For over a century, China and the US have been in a tug-of-war of sorts, involving economics, geopolitics, culture and values. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao sums up 100 years of friendship and rivalry between arguably the two most powerful countries in the world at the moment.
An illustration in Puck magazine describing China-US relations, 1880s. The US is depicted as Uncle Sam in an armoured vehicle loaded with equipment, facing a Chinese riding a dragon, with neither giving way.
An illustration in Puck magazine describing China-US relations, 1880s. The US is depicted as Uncle Sam in an armoured vehicle loaded with equipment, facing a Chinese riding a dragon, with neither giving way.

(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.

US President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon admiring the view from the Great Wall on their visit to China in February 1972.
In April 1984, US President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan visited the Great Wall; the US presidents that followed also had photos on the Great Wall as a symbol of friendship between China and the US. Reagan was known for his tough anti-communist stance, but after becoming the US president, he immediately sought to improve China-US relations.
An illustration in Judge magazine, 1880s, depicting China as Little Red Riding Hood surrounded and oppressed by fierce wild animals symbolising colonialism.

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 cover illustration of The Wasp magazine, November 1885, depicting China as “many handed but soulless”.

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.

Chinese workers building the Pacific Railroad, 1869. In terms of efficiency, the hardworking Chinese had a clear edge over the Irish workers, but their contributions were overlooked for the longest time.
Chinatown in San Francisco, the largest Chinese community outside of China, 1910s.
A postcard showing San Francisco Chinatown, 1910s.
A Chinese woman in Portland, Oregon, 1900s. In the early days, Chinese migrants were mostly concentrated in cities on the US west coast.
A portrait photograph of a Chinese couple in the US, 1900s, a rosy representation of the Chinese seeking a new life in the US.

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.

The Wasp magazine in the 1880s vilified Chinese culture as rapacious, growing up from a kitten to a tiger under the care of white Americans, only to eat their masters. Such prejudice and fear by the US against the Chinese existed a century ago.
An illustration in a US magazine, 1900s, depicting a Western officer training Chinese troops — a motley crew that turns into a strong, modern force. Westerners’ hidden fear of a strong China comes through strongly in this image.

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.

The grand US embassy under construction in Dong Jiaomin Xiang, the Beijing Legation Quarter, 1915.
US Independence Day celebrations at the US embassy in Beijing, 1915.
8 July 1942, White House — President Roosevelt, the US postmaster-general Frank Walker (middle), and ROC Minister of Foreign Affairs T.V. Soong looking at the newly marketed 5-cent “China Resistance” commemorative stamp.
The five-cent “China Resistance” commemorative stamp. In the background of the stamp is a map of China, with the ROC insignia in the middle, to the left is a portrait of Lincoln, and to the right is a portrait of (ROC founding father) Sun Yat-sen. The Chinese characters read “Confront the Invasion, Build the Nation”. (Internet)

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.

US flying ace General James Harold Doolittle (third from left) carried out the bombing raid on Japan that later bore his name. He landed in China and eventually reached Chongqing with the help of Chinese guerillas, where he received an award from Soong Mei-ling. The other US pilots in the operation were also given honours.
8 June 1942, Kunming — Marshal Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in conversation with Claire L. Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers under the ROC Air Force. American writer Roby Eunson said this of Madame Chiang: “[She] used to learn only music, literature, and social virtues, started to spend a lot of time on aviation theory, aircraft design, and professional publications on aircraft components and quality standards. She led negotiations with foreign businessmen and procured products and components worth US$20 million. She changed hat from a purchaser to the commander-in-chief of the Chinese Air Force overnight. No other woman did it before.” Madame Chiang is also known as the “mother of the Chinese air force”.
30 March 1943, Kunming — Gathered around the 23rd Fighter Group flag are (from right) Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chennault, Col. Henry Strickland, who later led the 3rd Squadron of the Chinese American Composite Wing, Lt. Col. Bruce Holloway, Maj. Albert Baumler, and Col. Clinton D. Vincent.
22 February 1943, Washington, DC — Madame Chiang, a personal guest of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, visits the tomb of George Washington on the 210th anniversary of the birth of the first American president. (From left): Kung Ling-kan (Mdm Chiang’s nephew), Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Chiang, President Roosevelt, and Admiral Nelson Brown.
9 March 1943, Wellesley, Massachusetts — A graduate of Wellesley College, Madame Chiang revisits her alma mater to a grand welcome. Posing for a group picture in front of the memorial chapel are (from left) Sarah Moore, head of the Student Association; Madame Chiang; Mildred McAfee, president of Wellesley and also US Navy Lieutenant; and Helen Webster, chair of Tau Zeta Epsilon. Madame Chiang was a member of Tau Zeta Epsilon (TZE), Wellesley College's Art and Music Society.
1 March 1943, New York — On her way from Penn Station to City Hall, Madame Chiang and her motorcade pass through Chinatown, as thousands of Chinese stand by waiving American and Chinese flags. Some Chinese restaurants put up banners and decorations to greet her presence. New York Police maintained tight security measures, and two policemen followed right behind her vehicle. Her nephew L.K. Kung is seated in the back row.
March 1943, New York — Chinese-American children standing along the streets in Chinatown, waving ROC and American flags to welcome Madame Chiang.
April 1943, San Francisco — Overseas Chinese stage a grand float parade to welcome the visit of Madame Chiang. On one float is an "Uncle Sam" figure with a hand reaching over a globe to deliver airplanes, tanks and steamships to a Chinese figure, with a backdrop showing Chinese soldiers struggling with the enemy. Madame Chiang stayed in San Francisco for five days.
1944, Los Angeles — Tong Shih-liang and Ma Yu, two Chinese pilots sent to the US for training, obtain autographs from movie star Greer Garson. Interestingly, one of the autographs was written on a photograph of Madame Chiang during her visit to the US. The two young pilots arrived in the US a few weeks earlier, and their training base was close to Hollywood. Tong’s father, Hollington Tong, was the vice-minister of information, and accompanied Madame Chiang on her visit to the US. Greer Garson won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the movie Mrs Miniver.
25 November 1943, Cairo — Three state leaders meet in Cairo to discuss military actions ending World War II and the post-war international organisation. This photo taken outside the Mena House Hotel shows (from left): Acting ROC President Chiang Kai-shek, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Madame Chiang. This is the most widely used photograph symbolising China’s elevated international status in the later years of WWII.

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.

In 1951, China saw a wave of propaganda promoting resistance against the US and assistance for North Korea, and encouraging people to support the volunteer army fighting on the Korean peninsula.
Volunteer troops capture retreating US soldiers in the Korean War, December 1950. Most American POWs were captured by the volunteer army in the first stages of the fighting.
In December 1950, the volunteer army marched into Seoul and celebrated outside the Korean parliament building, only to be driven out again with a United Nations Command (UNC) counterattack in early January 1951. Seoul changed hands four times.
An art troupe from China entertaining volunteer troops at the front line, 1951.
In May 1951, after General Matthew Ridgway took over from MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, the US army leveraged its advantage in weaponry and mechanisation to counterattack, capturing many volunteer soldiers. Ridgway was the key orchestrator of the turnaround for the Americans in the Korean War.

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.

US President Richard Nixon met Chinese President Mao Zedong at Zhongnanhai, Beijing, February 1972, marking a turning point in China-US relations.
Chinese Vice-President Deng Xiaoping with US President Jimmy Carter before their dialogue, February 1972. This was the first face-to-face talk between top leaders since normalisation of China-US relations — during the period of the talks, China was in the midst of conducting counterattacks in Vietnam.
US President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush meeting the public at Tiananmen, February 1989. Bush was chief of the US Liaison Office to the People's Republic of China, and was familiar with China affairs. The Tiananmen incident happened soon after Bush’s visit.
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft arriving in Beijing, 9 December 1989, received by vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Huaqiu. This was secret diplomacy following the Tiananmen incident, which led to shockwaves when subsequently revealed.
US President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea enjoying themselves on the Great Wall, June 1998.
US President Bill Clinton conducting a Chinese band in playing God Bless America at the Great Hall of the People, 1998.

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.

This photo taken on 14 January 2023 shows employees working on a car assembly line at a Beijing Automotive factory in Qingdao, in China's eastern Shandong province. (AFP)

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.

A participant waves flags from the US and Taiwan during the Lunar New Year Parade in the Chinatown neighbourhood of Washington, DC, on 22 January 2023. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP)

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.

xi biden
US President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, 14 November 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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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