President-elect Donald Trump said during the presidential campaign that China was “raping” the U.S. when it comes to trade, that it was responsible for the “greatest theft in the history of the world” and that his treasury secretary would label China a currency manipulator. China is winning; the U.S. is losing.
That’s hardly a new argument, as veteran foreign correspondent John Pomfret details in his well-researched new book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, which vividly chronicles the history of U.S.-China relations.
In the 19th century, more Chinese workers started coming because the U.S. signed a treaty with China in 1868, and as Pomfret writes: “By the time the treaty was signed, Chinese had been coming to the United States for almost two decades.” They soon represented 10 percent of California’s population.
Americans welcomed them. Chinese workers drained swamps to produce millions of acres of the richest farmland in the world. The Chinese were miners, laundrymen, cooks, small merchants and railroad workers. They helped build the West. A Republican who owned mines and built railroads told the California State Senate that Chinese workers were “men of iron” and “hardy, industrious laborers.”
But once the Civil War ended in 1865, a huge pool of American men headed west to look for jobs. The economy slowed, and Americans turned on the Chinese. At that time, a higher percentage of Chinese were employed than white men, so state laws blocked Chinese entry to the U.S. and prevented those already here from working.
In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. for 10 years. It was the first time the U.S. specifically denied entry to a particular ethnic group.
The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom shows how the U.S. and China have been connected since the late 18th century, long before President Richard Nixon ended more than two decades of estrangement with his famous 1972 visit.
The book is particularly timely because it takes readers on a grand, historic adventure that shows the cyclical love-hate relationship, when current politicians in both countries are sometimes fond of focusing on the hate. The Chinese name for the U.S. is mei guo, “the beautiful country”; the Chinese name for China is zhong guo — the Middle Kingdom.
Pomfret describes the strange and complex situation 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.”
One remarkable character whose story illuminates the business ties is Wu Bingjian, who did business under the name Howqua. He was the world’s richest private businessman in the early 19th century.
Howqua made his money in tea, and later mentored two clerks from Boston — John Perkins Cushing and John Murray Forbes. Howqua insisted that Forbes manage his American investments, and Forbes put money in land, transport, manufacturing and railroads. One of his factories made one of the first rail ties in the U.S., and Forbes became a railroad magnate.
The U.S. also helped China modernize on multiple fronts.
In the 19th century, a U.S. soldier of fortune, Frederick Townsend Ward, became the first foreign officer in the Qing army and started a long history of American involvement in Chinese military reforms.
In 1991, Henry Paulson led the investment banking wing of Goldman Sachs, and he had the idea of merging China’s state-owned companies to create firms that could compete on the world stage. American bankers reaped large profits, and Pomfret says that idea saved China’s state-run economy and arguably the Communist Party.
“China Inc. was ‘Made in the USA,’ ” Pomfret writes.
The book is a compelling reminder that even the most anti-American Chinese propagandists looked up to America.
Mao Zedong had “studied Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to science … was a fan of George Washington, admired Theodore Roosevelt, and starting in 1915, read a little English each morning, a habit he would retain until late in life.”
In fact, people in both the U.S. and China have dreamed of a “Great Harmony” between both countries for centuries.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt came from a family of China traders, and without losing sight of Chinese shortcomings, he thought of China as one of “four policemen” for permanent peace, along with the U.S., Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R.
Henry Luce, the creator of the Time-Life magazine empire, was born in China to missionary parents. He considered the U.S. to be the top country in the world, and that Sino-U.S. relations would modernize China.
Pomfret, who reported from China for The Associated Press and The Washington Post, argues the U.S. continues to have an important role to play in getting the Chinese government to carry out political reform. He says the U.S. is the only nation capable of restraining China’s military, with its advanced arsenal and growing army.
The book fleshes out the dual U.S.-China narrative through stories of people, without losing sight of the larger context.
These figures include P.C. Chang, a U.S.-educated playwright and professor who helped write the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Chang introduced the Chinese idea of ren, which is in Article 1, translated as “brotherhood.” Pomfret details Chang’s extraordinary life in various sections, concluding that Chang “personified the dream of the Great Harmony between China and the United States.”
He notes that Chang’s work demolishes the Chinese Communist Party argument that “the Universal Declaration on Human Rights represents Western political values incompatible with those of the rest of the world.”
We also learn about Adele Fielde, an American missionary who taught Chinese women to read, as well as teaching them hygiene, basic medical skills and geography, “so that her missionary work began to resemble less an evangelical enterprise than an early version of the Peace Corps.”
Pomfret points out that for pioneers like Fielde, “China offered freedom and opportunity at a time when educated American women faced limited career choices at home. American women were surgeons in China when they were denied entry into operating rooms in America. They chaired university departments when only a few of them were teaching at the college level in the United States.”
He also notes that many years later, in 1995, another American woman went to Beijing and chided societies for condoning forced abortions and sterilizations, hailing the work of independent women’s organizations. At the time, newspapers across the U.S. called on her to cancel her trip, but she went anyway and got a huge response in Beijing, reviving her career. Her name: Hillary Clinton.