Excerpt: 'The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom'

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) looks on with China's President Xi Jinping (R) during a meeting at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou on September 4, 2016. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The relationship between China and the United States is as old as America itself — and the fates of two continent-sized countries are now as entwined as ever. In his new book The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, the journalist John Pomfret presents a survey of the Sino-American history and shows how each country has influenced the foreign policy, culture, and society of the other. Pomfret, a longtime reporter for the Washington Post, was the winner of Asia Society's 2003 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asia Journalism for his reporting in China. He will appear alongside Elizabeth Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, during the event 'ChinaFile Presents: ‘The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom’: The Complexities Guiding the Sino-U.S. Relationship' at Asia Society in New York on November 30.

In this excerpt from The Beautiful Country, Pomfret traces the ups and downs of the U.S-China relationship through the previous two centuries — and what this history tells us about the present.

America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s and profits from that commerce bankrolled America’s industrial revolution. In the 1830s, the 40-odd Americans living in the tiny trade outpost on the outskirts of Canton boxed far above their weight. Thanks to their labors, the United States became the Middle Kingdom’s number two trading partner after the mighty British. Chinese officials then began what would become a tradition: looking at the United States as a bulwark against China’s enemies. Over the years, they would propose alliances with the United States to counter the British, the Germans, the Russians (or Soviets), and the Japanese.

The first American Christian missionaries arrived in China in the 1830s. Though they are often held up as an unbecoming example of American cultural imperialism, forcing Jesus on an unwilling people steeped in an older Confucian creed, they were crucial to China’s development. Along with Western-educated Chinese, they supplied the tools to break the stranglehold of traditional orthodoxy. They taught the Chinese Western science, critical thinking, sports, industry, and law. They established China’s first universities and hospitals. These institutions, though now renamed, are still the best of their kind in China. America’s women missionaries crusaded against the barbaric customs of female infanticide and foot-binding, helping to accomplish the greatest human rights advances in modern Chinese history.

As Americans brought Christianity to China, laborers from southern China flocked to California in search of gold. By the 1860s they constituted the largest population of foreign-born people in the American West. Those who didn’t pan for gold wound up building the West. They drained the Sacramento River delta, creating one of the richest agricultural belts in history. They laid half of the Transcontinental Railroad connecting the East and West coasts. With their grocery stores, laundries, vegetable patches, and apothecaries stocked with herbal remedies, they provided essential services without which the West could not have been won. 

Mainstream Americans turned on the Chinese in the 1870s. Congress made them the first ethnic group to be banned from the United States when it blocked Chinese workers from America in 1882. The Chinese did not stop coming, however, and, using funds collected by Chinese merchants, they hired America’s best lawyers to challenge a raft of racist laws and ordinances. Those cases contributed greatly to the advancement of civil rights for all Americans, undergirding, for example, the push in the 1950s to dismantle the “separate-but-equal” educational system for American blacks. 

Despite its racism, America remained a land where many Chinese could realize their dreams. The Chinese were hounded across the West not simply because they were different. In their industriousness they rivaled and threatened competing white settlers and they made whites work harder. That ability to thrive in America and make all of America more competitive continues to this day. 

While some Americans hated the Chinese, others nurtured a deep concern with China’s well-being. Though commercial activity dominated the U.S. approach to Europe, South America, Japan, and elsewhere, the emotional attachment to these places — with the exception of Great Britain — was not nearly so deep as that to China. “Clear your plate; there are children starving in China” was a dinner-table mantra for generations of Americans. So was the “pennies for China” campaign in churches across the heartland. 

With the turn of the 20th century and the dawning of America as a global power, policy makers in Washington took more interest in China and fought to keep the country whole, despite efforts by European nations and Japan to carve it into colonies. American statesmen moved to bind China’s best and brightest to the United States, establishing a fund to educate Chinese stateside. The Boxer Indemnity scholarships spawned Nobel Prize winners, scientists, politicians, engineers, and writers and set the scene for a Chinese intellectual renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Those same decades found Americans intrigued by Chinese culture — its food, art, poetry, and mysticism. A Chinese-American woman from Los Angeles became the first nonwhite movie star in the United States. American taste buds accepted Chinese food. American tycoons put together the world’s greatest collections of Chinese art and endowed museums from Boston to New York, Washington, Kansas City, and San Francisco to house them. 

In 1937, the Japanese invasion of China knit China and America closer together than ever. Before the war there had been ten thousand Americans in China; their numbers jumped tenfold in just a few years. But as the war progressed, America came to see its Chinese ally, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, as dictatorial, incompetent and, worst of all, unwilling to fight Japan. As a result, many Americans viewed Chiang’s enemies, the Chinese Communist Party, as the true guerrilla David battling a mechanized Japanese Goliath. State Department officials were convinced of the accuracy of this perspective, and steered U.S. policy away from providing aid to Chiang for his showdown with the Communists after the war. 

We now know that the reality was more complex. Chiang’s armies fought so stalwartly that it was they, not the Communists, who sustained 90 percent of the casualties battling the Japanese. Americans at the time comforted themselves with the notion that the United States had done all it could to help Chiang Kai-shek. But countless promises of aid, weapons, and gold to his government had gone unfulfilled. 

Some historians have argued that after the war the United States missed a chance to forge good relations with Chairman Mao Zedong as Communism took hold. But documents from Chinese archives released in recent years show that Mao was not ready for ties with America. Mao used hatred of the U.S. as an ideological pillar of his revolution. Even today, the legacy of Mao’s paranoia about America colors China’s relations with the United States.

In the 1970s, Western obituaries reporting the demise of American influence in China were premature. Almost from the day China re-opened to the West, American pragmatism, its free market approach, and light touch regulation have dominated China’s economic reforms. American culture has monopolized its movie and TV screens, and Christianity, despite Communist oppression, has experienced a renaissance of unprecedented proportions. American values, education, and even its fresh air are the envy of manyChinese. From Deng Xiaoping on, every Communist leader has sent at least one of his children to the U.S. to study, including the Harvard-educated daughter of the current president, Xi Jinping

When the two nations rediscovered each other in the 1970s, American sympathetic regard for the Middle Kingdom was rekindled, and Americans again worked to make China strong. Since then, no other country has been more important to China’s rise than the United States. Its open markets, open universities, and open society have served as the key foreign drivers of China’s return to greatness. Meanwhile, China has renewed its claim on the American imagination and entered every home with the ubiquitous three-word phrase: “Made in China.”

>For those reading this book in China, the time is also right for a reappraisal of the Middle Kingdom’s ties to Meiguo, the Beautiful Country — China’s name for the United States. Communist histories have twisted the story of America’s 200-year-long association with China. In the early days of the relationship, Chinese are told, the United States schemed to colonize China, acting no better than the imperialist powers of Old Europe or even Japan. They’re taught that American charity was a trick. The Chinese version of World War II airbrushes American sacrifices from the tale. China, not the United States, beat Japan, the Chinese learn. As for the Korean War, to this day Chinese textbooks maintain that South Korea, backed by America, started that conflagration, when in truth it was the North Koreans supported by Joseph Stalin and Mao. Over the past five decades, these same textbooks also claim, America has sought to keep China down. 

Still, although the Communist Party won’t admit it publicly, many Chinese privately acknowledge America’s role in China’s ascent and the fact that, more than perhaps any other nation, China has benefited from the Pax Americana — the system of free trade, secure waterways, and globalized financial markets built by the United States and its allies after World War II. It is no coincidence that although China’s growth was impressive in the 1980s and 1990s, it became a global trading power only after 2001, when the United States ushered it into the World Trade Organization. As the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo observed, China “needs challenge, even ‘menace’ from another civilization; it needs a vast and surging, boundless sea to pound it out of its isolation, its solitude and its narrow-mindedness.” America has filled that role. 

Year by year, decade by decade, the two nations have bound themselves closer together. America has been China’s top trading partner since the 1990s. China surpassed Canada to become America’s top partner in 2015. Scientists on both sides of the Pacific cooperate in more fields — fighting cancer, splitting genes, looking for clean energy, investigating atomic particles, discovering new drugs— than their counterparts in any other two countries. Complications between these two great nations abound as the United States and China and Americans and Chinese cooperate and compete across the world. 

If there is a pattern to this baffling complexity, it may be best described as a never-ending Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. Both sides experience rapturous enchantment begetting hope, followed by disappointment, repulsion, and disgust, only to return to fascination once again. In the 19th and 20th centuries, American missionaries fantasized that China would become the world’s largest Christian nation, while mandarins in Beijing counted on America to shield their country from the depredations of European imperialists and Japan. Neither wish was fulfilled. But new expectations follow inevitable disillusion with every spin of history’s wheel.

At present, Americans have entered the disenchantment phase of the cycle, their views clouded by economic and strategic concerns. China, the narrative goes, pilfers American jobs, swipes its secrets, stockpiles its debt, and is now scheming to expel the U.S. Navy from the Western Pacific. In the American imagination, China has traversed the arc from object of benevolence to fount of anxiety. A trip to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the tomb of the First Emperor once topped the bucket list of generations of Americans. Today, U.S. tourist visits to China are flat and public opinion toward the country has soured. 

The Chinese feel dispirited, too. Their leaders expected America to make way for China in the Pacific. In the 1970s, senior American officials assured them that the U.S. would pull its troops from South Korea and step aside as China recovered Taiwan, thereby completing China’s unification. Many Chinese have also grown tired of Americans telling them what to do. At the same time, other Chinese understand that they are losing the goodwill of many Americans and this has given them pause. While Americans are asking whether they have given China too much, some Chinese are beginning to ask whether they have pushed America too far. These fluctuations, too, are rooted in history. The two nations have feuded fiercely and frequently. Yet, irresistibly and inevitably they are drawn back to one another. The result is two powers locked in an entangling embrace that neither can quit. 

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.