In the History of U.S.-China Relations, a Pattern of Enchantment and Despair

By EDWARD WONG  NOV. 24, 2016

What has been the overarching paradigm of United States-China relations from the 18th century to now?

Americans and Chinese have been enchanting each other and disappointing each other since they first met in 1784, when the first U.S. ship landed in Guangzhou with a cargo of American-grown ginseng and silver to trade for tea. If there’s a pattern to the relationship, it has been rapturous enchantment followed by despair. Right now, Americans are in the disenchantment phase of the cycle, as are the Chinese.

You tell many colorful anecdotes of Americans and Chinese in contact with each other. Which one do you think best reflects the wider story?

One of the main goals of the book was to bring to light stories of unchronicled influence on both sides. The first American minister to the Qing court in Beijing was a young Republican named Anson Burlingame. Burlingame was a radical abolitionist who was dispatched to Beijing by the Lincoln administration.

Burlingame believed that the West needed to give China time to develop and modernize and stop pressuring China to change. He believed that the West had no right to criticize, for example, the way China treated Chinese Christians, and he argued that Western officials should tolerate the Chinese habit of maintaining that their emperor actually ruled the entire world.

To me, Burlingame encapsulates one side of the American view of China, one that reappeared in the 1970s and lasted up through the beginning of the Obama administration — the idea, or rather the bet — that China would liberalize and become more like us as long as we facilitated its rise. In opposition to Burlingame, other Americans believed his views on China were, as one of his successors in Beijing put it, a “hallucination.” That also has formed a key part of the American perspective on China.

Your book discusses the way governments in the two nations have interacted with each other, but you also go into detail on the roles that notable nonpolitical figures have played. To what extent does the United States-China relationship depend on the attitudes of each countries’ leaders versus those of other citizens, whether they are from the elite classes or the grass roots?

In many ways, we and the Chinese, and our governments, elites and those from the grass roots, are captives of our past.

In the beginning of the relationship, individual Americans and Chinese created the relationship and imbued it with much of its meaning. American merchants and missionaries saw China as a vast market for stuff and for souls. Chinese saw America as a place that could save China from the depredations of other imperialist nations and, with its world-class educational system, as a model for China to emulate. At the same time, other groups of Americans feared the Chinese and, starting in the late 1870s, oppressed Chinese workers in America, starting a long history of fearing the industriousness of the Chinese.

Chinese had their own prejudices against Americans and American ideas as well, viewing them as immoral, sexually deviant and dangerous. Many of these dreams and nightmares, fantasies and biases we have about each other have resurfaced in subsequent decades. In Donald Trump’s claim that China has been “raping” the United Stateswhen it comes to trade, one can hear the populists of the California Workingmen’s Party in late 19th-century California railing on the streets of San Francisco against “the heathen Chinese.”

In your many years as a journalist in China, what were the most notable changes you saw in the United States-China relationship?

With China’s rise, Beijing is less willing to bend to Washington’s will than before and more willing to aggressively pursue its interests, whether they involve trade or the South China Sea. Washington spent decades arguing that as China strengthened it would become more like a liberal Western nation. It hasn’t turned out that way, and as such the U.S. has stopped doing China any favors. Much more than before, it is blocking the sales of Western companies to Chinese firms and strengthening its alliances with nations around China’s periphery. The careful balance of containment and engagement that defined America’s policy toward China is now heavily skewed toward containment.

What are your thoughts on President Xi Jinping’s worldview and how the United States fits into that?

Xi Jinping has said he wants Asians to rule Asia, which I think can be translated into a desire to see China rule Asia. In this view, the U.S. is an interloper and would do best to retreat to Hawaii and let China handle the western Pacific. China benefited greatly from the Pax Americana in the Pacific, but now Xi feels that China does not need the U.S. to protect it anymore. It wants the U.S. out of Asia. Not next year, not the year after, but one day soon.

With the election of Donald Trump as the next United States president, where do you see the relationship going?

Trump is not an outlier when it comes to his views on China. They are contradictory, but so were Obama’s and those of many of his predecessors.

During the campaign, Trump seesawed between accusing China of “raping” the United States on trade, threatening to walk away from America’s alliances in East Asia — and thereby ceding the western Pacific to Beijing — and mulling the idea of some type of “grand bargain” with China where the U.S. would accept China’s rise if China did not endanger the status quo in Asia.

Trump will enter office against a backdrop of an Asia facing a nuclear-armed dictator in North Korea and a China eager to capitalize on American missteps. How he juggles America’s — and his own — competing mix of enchantment, disappointment and self-interested realism about China will help determine the future of the relationship and the future of the globe. If I had to guess, I think he is going to be more pragmatic than many initially thought, but prognostication is a tough business, especially when it comes to China and Donald Trump.


黃安偉 2016年11月25日

記者潘文(John Pomfret)在中國有著豐富經驗,在其第二本書中,他對從1776年至今的美中關係這個宏大題材進行了細緻入微的研究。隨著美中關係壓力不斷增長、兩國均出現強人領袖,《美國與中國》(The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom)一書的出版正逢這個充滿不確定性的轉折點。從廣東富豪伍秉鑒(Howqua)到美國著名密碼學家赫伯特·亞德利(Herbert Yardley),再到美國前財政部長小亨利·M·保爾森(Henry M. Paulson Jr.),潘文用各種各樣的人物追溯了一段悠久歷史。

潘文將於下週二在華盛頓的「政治與散文」(Politics and Prose)書店介紹他的書。在訪談中,他探討了中美兩國互動的歷史、國家主席習近平的世界觀,以及川普政府可能採取什麼樣的中國政策。




這本書的主要目的之一,是讓人了解兩國未被載入史冊的有影響的故事。美國派駐北京清廷的第一位公使,是一位名叫蒲安臣(Anson Burlingame)的年輕共和黨人。蒲安臣是一位激進的廢奴主義者,是林肯政府把他派往北京的。