China and the West: How to arrive at better understanding of each other

Pomfret's balanced account illustrates well the up-and-down cycle – moving from relative warmth to frosty chill, and then back to warmer again – between China and the US.

Although China is today among the world’s economic powerhouses, many Westerners are unaware of what an incredible transformation this represents in less than 70 years.

China’s long civil war, most of it waged at the same time that China was also fighting to repel Japanese invaders, ended in 1949 with the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. But it was a poor nation, its people and resources exhausted from decades of war.

Under the leadership of the Communist Party, and aided in the early years by the Soviet Union, China began to rapidly industrialize and urbanize, achieving the kind of makeover in mere decades that took most other nations a century.

If we are to understand China’s reservations about some Western — and US — motives and intentions, we must be mindful of the two centuries of interactions between China and the West before our present time.

Two books by Robert Bickers that cover the often unhappy relations between China and the West from the early 19th century to the present day are “The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire,” and “Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination.”

And John Pomfret’s “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present” is a thorough study of the relationship between China and the United States from the late 18th century onward.

Bickers reveals how the West in the 19th century — Great Britain being the chief offender — repeatedly insulted China by firing upon her territory, occupying large portions of her coastal regions around key trading ports, and forcing her to agree to commercial terms far more favorable to them than to China.

Deemed ‘lesser’

While it is customary for nations to regard others’ diplomatic stations as representing their nations’ own soil, the British — soon followed by the French, the Dutch and the Americans — took over entire neighborhoods as if they were their own; Chinese streets, alleyways and boulevards therein often became dangerous for Chinese ignoring posted notices warning against “trespassing.”

To be sure, this behavior was typical of how, in the latter part of the 19th century, Western nations also behaved towards other nations they deemed “lesser” as they competed among themselves for commercial advantage and colonial possessions.

In addition to the impact that trade backed up by force had on China, it quickly became a magnet for another, in many ways even more unsettling, intrusion: the arrival of Christian missionaries. Some of these came, with similar faulty assumptions about China’s alleged “backwardness,” to “save the heathen natives,” still others to both share their faith and study the differences between their own societies and China’s.

They often had a positive impact by their habit of establishing schools for local children and interested adults and in offering health care services that clearly helped more isolated areas. But their proselytizing, combined with their ignorance of Chinese religious practices, also offended many, especially when they interpreted Chinese reverence for their ancestors as a form of idolatry, calling it ancestor-worship.

From the early 19th century onward, however, many foreigners who journeyed to China quickly learned to admire and respect it for its culture, arts, and remarkable historical longevity. Nonetheless, in many ways, China’s earliest experiences with “the West” were both unhappy and destabilizing. Ever since there has been a back and forth between those in China who admire at least some of the institutions and practices of the West and, therefore, who push for China to adopt them itself and those who loath substantial elements of Western values and institutions because they undermine valued traditions and threaten Chinese interests.

There is a similar contest in the West, too, between those who admire China and wish to develop all possible friendly relations with her and those who regard her as the preeminent threat to the “order” established by the US.

As both Bickers’ books, and Pomfret’s “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” make clear, the record in the 20th century remained a mixed one.

On the one hand, for example, the US repeatedly sought to support Chinese independence from foreign interference, especially that posed by Japan. But, on the other, China’s delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference formalizing the end of World War I found that its pleas for assistance were overridden by both the West’s infatuation with Japan’s rapid rise and, because of Japan’s military power, inclination to appease Japan in order to keep the Pacific region “stable.”

Even the US’ Open Door Policy was designed as much to keep trade with China open to it on an equal footing with other great powers as to prevent predatory nations from reverting to their behavior earlier in the 19th century.

China also found that her own hopes during the Second World War for more vigorous Allied assistance in pushing back Japanese armies within her borders were subordinated to the West’s priorities, including Great Britain’s resource-squandering attempts to keep the Japanese out of other Southeast Asian countries in their hope to maintain their colonies there after the war’s conclusion.

Lingering suspicions

Pomfret’s balanced account illustrates well the up-and-down cycle — moving from relative warmth to frosty chill, and then back to warmer again — between China and the US. Following the Second World War, when China was one of the founding members of the United Nations, the success of the Chinese Communists in winning total control of China caused reactions in both countries. Accordingly, both sides withdrew for years from attempts at efforts to arrive at a better understanding of one another.

Old suspicions in both nations still linger today, and for good reason. Even before the election of the unpredictable Trump, China looked with concern over Obama’s announced “pivot to Asia” which did not signal increased cooperation between the two nations as much as it took the form of what China interpreted as encirclement. In turn, from the perspective of many in the US, China’s rapid progress represented a potential “threat” to its interests in the Pacific.

This reader believes we have much more in common than divides us, including global issues that only cooperation among the great powers has a chance of resolving.

The author is a retired US statesman. Shanghai Daily condensed his article.


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