Few love/hate relationships matter more than America’s with China

The exhibition showcased the 30th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

From America’s Founding Fathers to the present day, the relationship between China and the United States has been a close and complicated dance, with mutual admiration and emulation, hopes raised and dashed, with cooperation and competition, betrayal and disillusionment.

Benjamin Franklin admired China as a Confucian society dedicated to the betterment of man. Chinese, for centuries, admired George Washington for embodying some of the best of Confucian ideas. On the economic side, trade with China helped get early America’s economy going.

Chinese book on George Washington
Decades later, Chinese immigrants were first welcomed to the United States to help build America’s railroads, and their work ethic was legendary. But when the economy tanked and jobs were scarce, white Americans lobbied to make them all go home.

Build a wall across the border with Mexico? Have a registry of a minority within the United States? Nothing’s new under the sun. In the 19th century, there were calls for such a wall to keep Chinese from entering the United States from Mexico, and there actually was such a registry — although, almost no Chinese registered.

In the 20th century, Chinese have absorbed American education, scientific methods, culture and movies. Even Mao Zedong couldn’t get enough of American films, and was, for a time, a fan of John Dewey. And as China has emerged as a global economic power second only to the United States, it has looked to the United States as the benchmark for how to be a global power, as it has found its own path into its new position.

Chinese railroad workers building US transcontinental railway in the 19th century
Chinese railway workers building the American transcontinental railway in the 19th centuryArchival

The story of America and China, Meiguo and Zhongguo or, in the literal translation from the Chinese, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, is one of each side looking to the other, influencing the other, sometimes misunderstanding, resenting or even fearing the other. But this has remained, and is arguably now more than ever, one of the most important relationships shaping the present and the future.

Offering a new, deeply researched and engagingly told story of how Americans and Chinese have engaged with each other since 1776, is John Pomfret, a former Washington Post China correspondent, who first came to China in 1980 to study Chinese in Nanjing. That was early in China’s new ‘reform and opening up’ era, including opening to the United States.

John Pomfret, former Washington Post China correspondent and author of
John Pomfret, former Washington Post China correspondent and author of "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present"Mary Kay Magistad

Pomfret’s new book, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present,” is rich in anecdotes not just about China-US statecraft, but also about life at the personal level, about traders and adventurers, missionaries and scholars, including the many Chinese scholars who studied in the United States and went back to China to become leaders in their fields and in Chinese society in the first half of the 20th century. 

Book cover of John Pomfret's new book about America and China's complicated relationship since 1776
Book cover of John Pomfret's new history of America and China's complicated relationship since 1776John Pomfret

So embedded in the Chinese psyche at that time was an admiration for America that it was a challenge for the Chinese Communists, once they took power in the second half of the century, to try to change people’s attitudes.

Student activists work on what they call the
Student activists work on what they call the "Goddess of Democracy" at a campus near Tiananmen Square in Beijing May 29, 1989.Ed Nachtrieb/Reuters
“There were these anti-American campaigns that the Communists inflicted on the Chinese people to try to get them to hate the United States, and it didn’t easily take,” Pomfret says. “[Premier] Zhou Enlai once complained to the Russian ambassador in the early ‘50s that the most difficult thing they were facing was to try to get Chinese to hate Americans.”

A Chinese generation that grew up without much if any interaction with Americans probably came closest, in the form of the Red Guards during the anti-modern Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. But then, a new era of reform and opening up started a new chapter of mutual infatuation. During the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, Chinese art students made and displayed a soaring white “Goddess of Democracy” — which looked quite a bit like the Statue of Liberty.

The crackdown that killed at least hundreds of protesters and other civilians slowed the US-China rapprochement, but only temporarily.

China continued to open up to the world, allowing more foreign investors in and more of its own citizens out to travel, study and do business. It has allowed the internet to reach hundreds of millions of people within China, which, even with censorship, also opened up new worlds and ways of communicating and expressing grievances.

Meanwhile, China’s economy kept growing, and pride in China’s rise grew too. China’s leaders poured money into modernizing the military, doing deals abroad to bring in needed resources and in building useful diplomatic relations. Sometimes this has been a net positive; China’s investment in Africa over the past decade has drawn renewed US attention and investment there as well.

China and Russia conduct air defense drills in the South China Sea
China and Russia conduct air defense drills in the South China SeaSputnikInternational

Growing Chinese nationalism, and muscular assertion of its claims in the South China Sea and beyond have been less welcomed by China’s neighbors and have proven more disruptive for the US-China relationship. That this is happening as China’s economic growth slows, its population ages and the Communist Party resists making needed reforms that would come at a cost of some control, makes this a potentially volatile time, especially with Donald Trump already challenging the status quo on Taiwan even before taking office as president.

“Chinese leaders worry about American power on a regular basis,” Pomfret says. “But at the end of the day, Xi Jinping’s main concern is domestic. And foreign policy to him is a function of domestic policy. It's always been for the Communists and the relationship with the United States is important to his domestic constituencies because he needs stability with us still. I mean, foreign trade is for China only 21 percent of its economy, and that's shrunk significantly. But it's still a big chunk. And so he needs predictability and stability from United States, and he looks at Donald Trump and he sees an unpredictable partner who could cause significant instability in their relationship and I don't really think he wants that.”

Testing each other on Taiwan policies, and deciding how much to cooperate to curb North Korea's nuclear aspirations will be two issues to watch in the opening months of Trump's tenure. So will the extent to which Trump is willing to start a trade war with China that could hurt both economies.

If he talks tough at first and then dials it down to a more pragmatic approach, he won't be the first US president to do so. Pomfret believes some of what Trump is saying and doing might actually prove to be a useful wake-up call to China's leaders, "to understand that we're not simply the facilitator of China's rise. … We're also a country that has core interests as well. And the Chinese must respect them."

And in the long run?

"I'm generally optimistic, actually," Pomfret says. "Many Chinese want to live a freer life and their lives are already significantly freer than they used to be. Chinese people — the young kids now much more so than their parents of course — are agents of their own fate. You know, they graduate from college and they're not assigned a job."

Chinese graduates at Columbia University
Chinese graduates at Columbia UniversityXinhua University

"They go into the workforce — they compete. It's a highly competitive society. It's also a very entrepreneurial society. So I think that, long-term, that desire to have a better life is going to bleed over naturally into a desire to have more freedom. And and as personal freedom expands, people want to have more political freedom and more predictability."

"I just think that the timeframe that many Americans had that this was going to happen overnight or just in the space of a couple of decades has been misunderstood, partially because Americans have a tendency to conflate very powerful pro-American proclivities of the Chinese with the Communist Party of China, which represents a very different strain of how to look at the West. So just as we're somewhat schizophrenia in our views of China, they're very schizophrenia in their views of us."

"Part of their society is very open to Western ideas, incredibly open, incredibly adaptive to Western ideas. Another part is also very rigidly against the West, and very xenophobic. And this is not just the Communists. This has gone back to Confucian Chinese as well. They have to deal with these demons about us, just like we have to deal with our own demons about the Chinese." 

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