WHAT'S BUGGING CHINA - SOME HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE By Tom MacDonald (Article)
We have all witnessed China’s recent misbehaviour and its refusal to play nice in the global sandbox. The Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats are howling. Chinese authorities seem impervious to Western criticism of their human rights abuses. The chokehold on Hong Kong is being tightened. Chinese fighter jets are buzzing Taiwan and artificial islands being built in the South China Sea. China’s economic tentacles are spreading globally through supply chain networks, strategic investments, massive loans to developing countries, and the Belt and Road initative. Billions are being poured into China’s military machine (albeit less than 40% of what the US spends annually). Where will this all end?
I am not about to tackle that question. But, given that this is the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, I thought it might be interesting to have a look backward into history for some clues as to what may have put such a large chip on China’s shoulder. That is not to suggest that historical events can in any way justify what China is doing now. But we do know that history casts a long shadow – just look at Canada and residential schools, or how the US seems to be refighting its Civil War and having heated debates about how to teach the history of slavery. It occurred to me that China may also be picking at some centuries-old scabs and, knowing relatively little about US-China relations prior to the famous “Nixon to China” moment, I decided to do some reading to educate myself. Having done so, I thought that I would share the results.
The “China Trade”
I was partly inspired in my research by a fascinating book called The China Mirage by James Bradley, which I highly recommend. It begins by chronicling US involvement in what was euphemistically called “the China trade” – i.e. opium dealing. We are all somewhat familiar with that dark chapter of history but we tend to associate it more with the British in the days when the sun never set on their empire. Interestingly, the opium trade emerged out of the West’s first trade deficit concerns with China. By the late 17th century, England was bleeding funds to pay for escalating imports of Chinese tea, as well as porcelain and silks. A solution to the trade imbalance was found not in Trumpian tariffs but in addicting the Chinese to a dependency on ever-increasing quantities of opium imported from British-controlled India. The Chinese Emperor frowned on the incursions of the European “sea barbarian” traders, but he also needed them to keep legitimate exchange flowing. So he was pressured to provide a trading port for the foreign devils in Canton (as far as possible from the capital of Beijing). He officially banned the opium trade but it flourished nonetheless via sales from offshore ships, distribution through networks of Chinese middlemen, and liberal bribes to local officials.
The British were joined in the trade by the French, Portuguese and others. But the American colonies were not allowed to break the China trade monopoly of the British East India Company – at least not until the American Revolution, when the game changed. The newly independent New Englanders set out to bring in their own tea from China without British taxes (remember the Boston Tea Party?). As early as 1784, the first American trading ship (the Empress of China) headed out with a load of sealskins and ginseng (for which New England was a natural growing area), supplemented en route by sandalwood from Hawaii. These products were not enough, however, to offset the heavy American demand for Chinese tea and other products. So soon the US had its own first large trade imbalance with China and, like Britain, turned to opium as the solution. To support the trade, the Americans displaced the Portuguese as the main customers for opium coming out of Turkey.
US history books tend to ignore the country’s role in the opium trade, and those involved in it preferred to gloss over the source of their wealth. But dealing in opium enriched numerous Boston Brahmin families, and many of the early North-eastern US railroads and other industrial investments were funded by opium profits. Many top US colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Colombia) also received major endowments from New England opium traders. Among the most prominent was one Warren Delano, the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Another was Francis Forbes (the maternal great grandfather of former US Secretary of State and Presidential candidate John Forbes Kerry).
The American position in the “China trade” was greatly strengthened during the First Opium War (1839-42) when British traders had to respect their country’s trade embargo on China. Their US competitors were quick to fill the gap. That war was started when the British sent their gunboats in response to a Chinese attempt to stamp out the opium trade. The Chinese were roundly defeated and the Emperor was forced to accept the Treaty of Nanking, the first in a long series of “Unequal Treaties” to which China would be subjected. This one ceded Hong Kong to the British, humbled the Qing Emperor, forced the legalization of opium, and opened the country more widely to the “sea barbarians”. Shortly thereafter, a weakened China was bullied into similar Unequal Treaties with France and the US.
A Century of Humiliation
The First Opium War began what the Chinese refer to as their “Century of Humiliation”. The humiliation went on to include the Second Opium War (1856-60) when China faced the combined forces of Britain and France, with the US also sending a gunboat and bombarding Chinese villages in the battle of the Pearl River Forts. That war led to the loss of Kowloon to the British. It also saw the sacking and burning to the ground of the Old Summer Palace, with the theft or destruction of many precious artifacts of Chinese history and culture. That infamous act was done on specific orders from former Governor General to Canada Lord Elgin, who by then had moved to be British High Commissioner/Plenipotentiary in China (perhaps we need to rename Elgin Street while we are in our “mea culpa” phase).
China was further humbled by Russia’s seizure of Outer Manchuria in 1860 and by the loss of suzerainty over Vietnam in the Sino-French war of 1884-85.
Then came the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 when an eight-country coalition (UK, France, US, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy, Japan, Russia) crushed an anti-foreigner, anti-imperialist uprising which sought to overthrow the discredited Qing dynasty, while also menacing foreign diplomats, traders and missionaries. That rebellion ended with foreign troops sieging and invading Beijing, the execution of tens of thousands in a post-rebellion anti-Boxer suppression, and the imposition of crippling reparations payments on China. The US role in crushing the Boxers was a significant one, thanks to having assets which could be deployed readily from the newly-acquired Philippines (spoils of the 1898 Spanish-American War). The image of US marines scaling the walls of the Forbidden City became an iconic one for Americans in the “bully for us” Teddy Roosevelt era (Charlton Heston and his American fighters were also shown giving it to the nasty Boxers in the 1963 movie 55 Days in Peking). Stirring stuff – although not so much for the Chinese.
Ethnic Cleansing in America
Nor was the humiliation of the Chinese limited to within their own borders. Persecution of Chinese within the US also became commonplace in the late 19th century. Many Chinese had come for the California gold rush and had proved to be harder-working, more frugal and more efficient miners than others in the goldfields. Chinese labourers also did some of the toughest work on the Transcontinental railroads, pushing them through the Sierra Nevadas when their white counterparts could not manage the task. Chinese immigrants subsequently fanned out throughout the US West as shopkeepers, restaurant and laundry operators, mechanics, labourers, and above all miners. But US labour unions fearing foreign job displacement, soon made them the target of hate campaigns, with the Knights of Labor led by Samuel Gompers being particularly vitriolic.
The hate campaigns led in turn to what can only be characterized as “ethnic cleansing”. During the 1870s and 1880s, there were gruesome murders, lynchings, burning of Chinatowns, and cruel expulsions of Chinese - in California, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Washington State, and most famously the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, where an entire community of some 700-900 Chinese coal miners and their families was burned to the ground, with the survivors fleeing into the wilderness under fire from Knights of Labor bullets.
The US political system also took up the anti-Chinese vitriol. In an effort to discourage Chinese labourers from staying in the US with families, the Page Act of 1875 banned any further immigration by Chinese women. That was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barring all Chinese, with only a few exceptions, such as diplomats and some approved students. That act, initially intended for ten years, was subsequently made permanent and not repealed until 1943 when the Magnuson Act opened the door for up to a grand total of 105 Chinese immigrants annually. It was not until 1952 that this limit was dropped and direct racial barriers in US immigration was abolished. The Chinese remain the only specific ethnic or national group to have been legislatively barred from immigrating to the United States. I might add that Canada was no better, passing its own version of a Chinese Exclusion Act (the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923), which remained in place until the 1947.
Teddy Roosevelt: Bully for Japan
While the first half of China’s Century of Humiliation came largely at the hands of European and Americans, the second half was dominated by Sino-Japanese events. Due to proximity, Japan was actually the largest supplier of both troops and ships in the Boxer rebellion (followed by Russia, the UK, and then the US and France at about equal levels). As Japan’s military-industrial power grew, a debilitated China became a prime target for its expansionist ambitions. Even prior to the Boxers, there was a first Sino Japanese War in 1894-95, fought mostly on Korean territory. This established, for the first time, Japanese dominance over China in Asia. It resulted in Japan taking effective control of Korea and also seizing Taiwan from China (never to be returned, as yet, since it was allocated by the West to the fleeing Chiang Kai Shek’s defeated nationalist government when the Japanese were ejected after WW II). Japan’s ascendency in Asia increased even further after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which was followed by outright Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910.
The US role in supporting Japan’s ascendency in Asia is an interesting one. After the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the US had acquired a huge swath of new territory and its first West Coast ports (San Francisco, San Diego). More Americans began to look toward the Pacific, conscious of the lucrative China trade. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry set out from New York with a fleet of warships. Although he had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope and via India and South-East Asia, his mission was all about the trans-Pacific China trade.
The US already had a trans-Pacific way-station in Hawaii as American sugar-planters had established effective control there (with some help from US marines, they would subsequently overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy in the 1890s, followed by annexation to the US in 1898). But in addition to Hawaii, another intermediate coal refueling port was needed for US steamships to reach Shanghai – a port somewhere in the vicinity of Japan. One objective of Perry’s mission was to achieve that goal. So he stopped to “purchase” from the locals most of a largely uninhabited Japanese-controlled island near Iwo Jima. He then went on to sail his fleet into Tokyo Harbour. He demanded a meeting with the Emperor and, having initially been denied one, threatened to bombard the city and vaporize its highly flammable wood and paper buildings. That resulted in the hoped-for audience and, under threat of war, the Emperor agreed to a treaty which would open the previously isolationist country to access for US traders. With its Pacific stepping-stones and Japan now open, America had secured its preferential route to China and a big leg up on the more-distant European traders.
Commodore Perry's menacing visit to Japan was important in another way. Aware that their previous isolationism could not be sustained, Meiji Japan began to aggressively adopt Western practices, including donning Brooks Brothers suits and top-hats, and beginning to build an industrial-military complex to emulate those in the West. "Leave Asia, tilt West" became their watchword. As a resource-poor country, much of the military-industrial transformation had to rely on imports of steel and oil from the US. Trade links deepened and the Japanese became known as "the Yankees of the Far East". Teddy Roosevelt certainly saw them that way. He divided the world into “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples with the former being destined to rule the latter, while also having the responsibility to protect them (the Kiplingesque " white man’s burden"). He counted the Japanese among the "civilized" peoples while, like most Americans of his day, he mocked and belittled the Chinese - regardless of how hard they might be capable of working or how much money might be made by trading with them. Teddy was particularly impressed with how the Japanese had fought alongside Americans and Europeans in the Boxer Rebellion, easily thrashing what he saw as the inferior Chinese sporting skirts, funny hats and pigtails.
Although Roosevelt knew almost nothing about Asia (he had never even visited the Pacific coast of the US before he became President), he looked at it through an imperialist lens. Just three years before he became President (thanks to McKinley’s assassination in 1901), the Spanish-American War had given the US its first offshore bits of "empire" - Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam. Teddy had played a major role in that, fomenting the war along with pals like William Randolph Hearst, joining it with his privately-organized “roughrider” contingent, and leveraging his San Juan Hill fame to advance his political career. As President, Teddy planned to parlay the imperialist gains from the Spanish American War, plus the Panama Canal which he was promoting, into the perfect route to China. The US had already made clear its intentions. In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay declared the Open-Door policy for China, warning European powers of the need for the US to have equal access to the Chinese market (a policy declared without consulting the Chinese). Teddy took things one step further. He declared his Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, establishing the US as the “big stick” policeman not only for the Caribbean and Latin America but also for China where he claimed a US right to intervene militarily if required to enforce the Open-Door policy.
Teddy was concerned not only about traditional British and French rivals in China but even more so about Russia – especially after its incursion into Manchuria, its completion of the trans-Siberian railroad, and its acquisition of strategic Port Arthur (Vladivostok) on the Pacific. So when the Japanese navy conducted a surprise attack against Russia in 1905 and precipitated the Russo-Japanese War, Teddy was secretly delighted. He suddenly, and strangely, saw the Western-imitating Japanese as carrying the hopes of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant world against the nefarious Slavic Orthodox forces of the Czar.
The Japanese played Teddy cleverly. They sent Harvard graduate Baron Kaneko to the US where his former law professor Oliver Weddell Holmes introduced him to fellow-Harvard-alumnus Roosevelt, and the old school tie went to work. Teddy and the Baron became extremely close, and soon Teddy was seeing more of Kaneko than of almost any other contact. He would send him “Banzai” telegrams every time Japan won a victory over the Russians. He also encouraged Kaneko to consider having Japan pronounce its own “Monroe Doctrine for Asia”, and he gave the Japanese a pretty good head-start on that by ensuring that they gained full control of Korea and parts of China in the peace accord with Russia. Roosevelt won a Noble Peace Prize for his role in arbitrating that settlement but all the while he was secretly conspiring with Baron Kaneko to ensure that Japan would win the peace.
The China Lobby
Less than 40 years after Roosevelt’s enthusiastic “bonsai” telegrams to the Baron, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. They had certainly taken to heart Teddy’s encouragement about establishing their dominance in Asia. That had come largely at the expense of China, culminating with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and then the Second Sino-Japanese War, starting in 1937, when Japan bombarded and seized control of the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanking, often with mass murder of civilians ensuing.
The US had, by the 1930s, come to view Japan as an inimical influence in Asia – no longer seen as a bulwark against Russia but rather as a potential threat to US dominance in the region. James Bradley’s book The China Mirage documents how a “China lobby” developed in the US and had a profound impact on its Asia policy. This lobby promoted the mirage that a Christianized, Americanized “New China” would emerge and become the best ally of the US in Asia. It also promoted the image of the Chinese “noble peasants” – not so noble that one would want any of them in them as immigrants to the US but certainly worthy of US action to help them drive the Japanese invaders out of China.
The “China lobby” reflected the tenets of American exceptionalism and was burning with American missionary zeal. The US saw itself (and still does) as a global power created to spread the “holy trinity” of Christianity, democracy and capitalism. American missionaries had been working the China scene to this end since the mid-1800s and revelled in the fact that the largest single part of the globe’s population (300 million souls in the early 1900s) had been left for them in China, relatively untouched by European proselytization and there to be “saved” by US good deeds and infused with American virtues.
The actual impact of American missionaries was minimal. The Christian concepts of sin, penitence and salvation did not sync well with deeply-rooted Confucian tradition; the number of competing missionary sects (Methodist, Lutheran, Congregationalist) made it all the more confusing for the Chinese; the symbiotic relationship between the early missionaries and their opium-trading countrymen did not endear them; and very few missionaries got beyond the Chinese sea-coast enclaves in any event. There were relatively few actual converts. Nevertheless, the missionary tales from China fired up many an American Sunday service and, by the 1920s, the “China lobby” was a powerful force.
Among the most prominent advocates within the lobby were two Americans who had grown up in China as children of missionaries (“mish-kids”) – Pearl Buck (of The Good Earth fame) and Henry Luce (the influential publisher of Time and Life Magazine).
The Japanese invasion of Manchuria became a cause celebre for the lobby. In order to free the noble Chinese peasants from Japanese oppression, it urged the US to use its economic leverage through export embargoes. The clamour became even louder after Japanese atrocities accompanied their more full-on invasion of China in 1937. By then, President Hoover had been succeeded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected in 1932 and a highly sympathetic ear for the China lobby.
FDR had been raised on China tales from his grandfather Warren Delano (although the old man always avoided the mention of opium). Delano enjoyed his ill-gotten gains in a mansion filled with Chinese art and furniture which FDR often visited as a boy. As his father had died when FDR was 18, young Franklin became much more a Delano than a Roosevelt and absorbed the family’s China history not only from his grandfather but from aunts, uncles and his mother, who had herself spent some childhood years in Canton while her father worked for the main American opium trading house there. She had adventurous tales of her family’s ocean voyage and their life in an alien land, although her actual encounters with Chinese other than servants would have been minimal and her ability to pass on to FDR any real knowledge of China even less.
In The China Mirage, Bradley documents how the China lobby infiltrated FDR’s administration and influenced its Asia policy. He argues quite convincingly that it was FDR’s actions against Japan, egged on by the China lobby, that led to the Pearl Harbour attack. One of the China lobby’s key “Washington warriors” was Henry Stimson. He had been Secretary of War under Taft (interestingly, the name was not changed to Secretary of Defense until 1947), and was Secretary of State under Hoover. He argued strongly for economic warfare with Japan as punishment for its invasion of Manchuria - cutting off their supply of oil and key materials, financial sanctions, a naval blockade. Stimson believed that such action could affect “regime change” in Japan (sounds familiar?). But Hoover was cautious. The US traded much more with Japan than China – oil, steel, half of the US cotton crop. There was also concern that Japan might be forced into a “first strike” action. Stimson discounted this risk, but Hoover opted for the more moderate policy of “non-recognition” of Japan’s Manchuria presence, while keeping the trade flowing.
FDR was also cautious, but his sympathy for China, and the pressure of the China lobby, led to a series of actions aimed at tightening the screws on Japan. After the full-scale Japanese invasion of China in 1937, their bombing of cities, and atrocities such as the so-called “rape of Nanjing”, the pressure for action was irresistible. The film version of The Good Earth also came out in 1937 (Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel prize for literature the following year). The China lobby ensured that newsreels of the Japanese bombings and atrocities were being played at every screening (although, interestingly, the film itself was short on real Chinese “noble peasants”, giving preference to white actors like Paul Muni and Katharine Hepburn in “yellow-face”).
FDR responded to the political pressures. He authorized major funding to assist the Chinese in fighting the Japanese invaders. He surreptitiously provided US military advisers, and bankrolled a secret initiative to create a Chinese air force and staff it with ex-USAF mercenaries. Once the 1940 election was behind him, he upped the ante. He moved the Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbour to be closer to Japan, and he began a series of economic actions – an embargo on aviation fuel, then on scrap metal, a threat of the same for US oil exports (on which Japan relied for 75 % of its supply), closing the Panama Canal to Japanese ships. In July, 1941, he froze Japanese assets in the US, putting what he called “a “noose around Japan’s neck”. In August, 1941, he used that freeze to preclude Japanese oil purchases in the US.
Negotiations to lift the embargoes were unsuccessful and, within months, Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbour. That coincided with Japanese troops moving into the Malay peninsula. Cut off from its US oil supply, Japan was heading for the oilfields of Indonesia and Brunei. Bradley argues that the China lobby played a major role in having WW II crash upon the US from Asia, and that the US WW II story was always more about that Asia than about any eagerness to help to save Europe. He notes that, interestingly, the US did not declare war on Germany until 3 days after it had done so on Japan and then only after Hitler had already declared war on the US in support of Japan.
Chiang Kai-Shek: Brought to You by the Soong Family
The role of the China lobby in precipitating the Pearl Harbour attack is debatable. But their influence on US China policy in the 1930s to 1940s is clear, in particular in the US decision to back the wrong horse in China. Chiang Kai-Shek became the darling of the China lobby, to the point of blinding US policymakers to what was really happening there, and causing some dramatic missteps in managing the relationship.
But let me get to Chiang via Charlie Soong – the patriarch of one of the most fascinating, and influential, families in China-US history. Soong came to the US as a labourer at age 15 in the 1880s but, instead of staying in the West where Chinatowns were being burned, he went to North Carolina. He learned English and became a Southern Methodist and, as the only Americanized Christianized Chinese in the state, he became a darling of the church crowd. He was more or less adopted by the extremely wealthy Julian Carr (of Bull Durham tobacco fame), lived in his mansion, learned business and religion from him, and was educated at good Southern Methodist colleges - Trinity College (now Duke) and Vanderbilt in Tennessee. One thing he learned was how much the Southern Methodists clutched their bibles and, when he returned to China, he established a highly successful publishing company based initially on providing the enormous numbers of bibles that the missionaries required to hand out to their largely uninterested prospective Chinese converts. Charlie went on from there to diversify into steel, shipping and other fields and to became one of China’s wealthiest men.
Soong used his wealth to bankroll Sun Yat Sen, who emerged as a nationalist leader in the early 1900s. Soong also became Sun’s chief fund-raiser in the US, presenting him to devout and gullible American church-goers as the prophet who would lead China into the promised land of a Christianized, Americanized “New China” (like Soong, Sun was baptized Christian and had been educated in Western missionary schools, in Hawaii and Hong Kong). By 1911, Sun’s movement had managed to dislodge the Manchu Qing dynasty – by then down to the 5-year-old boy known as “the Last Emperor”. Sun became the first President of the Republic of China in 1912. But within a year, China was in chaos, warlords had over-run much of the country, and Sun and Soong had both fled to Japan. Soong died there, but his children, all educated in the US, had a profound influence on subsequent Chinese history.
Soong had one son Tse-ven (known as T.V.) and 3 daughters: Ching-Ling (who married the much-older Sun Yat Sen), Mei-Ling (who became Madame Chiang Kai Shek), and Ai-Ling (who took over the family business from her father, married China’s wealthiest man H.H. Kung, and became one of the most powerful individuals in China). It was Ai-Ling who arranged her younger sister’s marriage to Chiang Ka- Shek. She called the Generalissimo to a meeting and gave him the ultimatum that, in exchange of her financial support and a valued political connection with the Soong-Sun Yat Sen brand, he would have to make her husband Prime Minister, make her brother T.V. Finance Minister, and marry her younger sister Mei-Ling. This would give the cunning and ruthless Ai-Ling someone in Chiang’s office, pocket and bedroom. Desperate to succeed Sun and establish his dominance, Chiang felt that he had little choice but to agree. The Generalissimo was no match for Ai-Ling, the dragon-lady. He even had to reluctantly renounce his current wife.
The Soong family became the propagandists for Chiang and did a hell of a job, at least in the US. While Ai-Ling pulled all the strings behind the scene, Mei-Ling (now Madame Chiang) became the Soong family “front man”. She had grown up in the US, was baptized a Southern Methodist, had been educated at Wesley College, spoke perfect English, and once said that the only thing Chinese about her was her face. That face became the face of China in the US, fronting for her husband Chiang who did not speak English. Mei-Ling was the Christianized, Americanized girl guiding China, through her husband the Generalissimo, toward the New China dreaam. The Chiang/Mei-Ling wedding in 1927 was featured as the event of the year by Henry Luce’s Life magazine. Luce also named them “man and wife of the year” for Time magazine. The following year the US dropped the arms embargo which had been imposed against China since 1919. Chiang could now access US weaponry for his battles against Mao and the Communists.
Luce went on to put Chiang on the cover of Time more than any other person in the late 1930s and 40s - nine times, 3 of them with Madame. Meanwhile, the Soongs also infiltrated deeply into the FDR administration. T V spent much of his time in the US chasing financial support and became a close poker-playing buddy with FDR’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. as well as a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Mei-Ling (Madame Chiang) spent a week in the FDR White House in 1943, and the following year addressed a joint session of the US Congress. She also persuaded FDR to invited the Generalissimo to the Cairo Conference along with a reluctant Winston Churchill (who was well aware of the Chiang-Soong money-grubbing and disparagingly referred to him as General “Cash-My-Check”).
In Life and Time, Luce (a former China “mish-kid”) presented Chiang in fantasy world terms – a new Lincoln for a New China, a brilliant general, a crusader ally against the Japanese, beloved by his people, a devout Methodist who reads his Bible every night (Luce even published a ghost-written article by Chiang on “what the sufferings of Jesus mean to me”). Chiang and Mei-Ling would spend their vacations with US missionaries in China. Madame Chiang started her New Life movement, feigning religious fervour and a dedication to the betterment of life for the Chinese people, including to inculcate them with the values of America and of Jesus. The Soongs milked the China mirage for all it was worth, and it was worth plenty - ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars in US government support, church and other donations, all of which funneled through the Soong-Chiang greedy hands.
The Chiang reality was of course light years away from the Time-Life portraits. He was a brutal fascist leader, engaging in wholesale slaughter - in 1927 alone, an estimated 30,000 “communist sympathizers” were massacred by his troops in Shanghai and hundreds of thousands more in the countryside (the same year of his celebrated wedding in Time-Life and the year before the US lifted its arms embargo). His plundering “locust armies” were hated by the overwhelmingly peasant population of China. His military prowess was a myth – by the later 1930s, he was losing most of the key battles with Mao and he never in fact really engaged against the Japanese. He preferred to focus on civil war with Mao and preached the concept of “Unity before Resisting”, as opposed to Mao’s “Unity by Resisting” against the Japanese invaders. At one point in 1936, Chiang was famously kidnapped by the Mao forces (“the Xian incident”) in order to force him to agree to unite, at least temporarily, in a common front against the Japanese (he did so but then contributed little to the effort). In the areas of China where he did have control, he crushed political dissent, famously burying alive several critical journalists and modelling his “blue shirts” on Mussolini’s “black shirts”. And he was incredibly corrupt, funnelling much of the aid received from the US and elsewhere into his own and the Soong family pockets. But for Luce and the China lobby, Chiang was China and Mao was Stalin’s puppet. The New China fables continued to be told and was believed by most Americans, including the policy-makers around FDR.
Why is China Communist?
China going communist can be traced, like the rise of Hitler and so many other ills, to the bungling of those who framed the post-WW I Treaty of Versailles. During the war, China had contributed 140,000 men to Britain’s Chinese Labour Core, recruited mostly through Hong Kong to work both in the trenches and on the home front. That got China a seat in Paris where their main objective was to regain control from Germany of Shandong province. Woodrow Wilson, in his wisdom, decided instead that Shandong should be given to Japan (maybe the Japanophile instincts of Teddy Roosevelt were still at play). Wilson’s treachery was greeted with outrage in China. Mao Tse Tsung’s first-ever involvement in a protest march was against that Wilson decision. Sun Yat Sen, who had been educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong and baptized a Christian, favoured collaboration with the Americans. But he could no longer ally with them after Versailles. China became the only participating country in Paris not to sign the treaty. And quick to take advantage were Stalin and the Soviets – never before active in China but obviously interested. They cleverly ingratiated themselves further by generously renouncing Russia’s “unequal treaty” with China (mostly because they were in no position to take any advantage of it). Soon the first-ever Soviet-supported political cells were operating in China, and Sun Yat Sen was looking to Moscow for support.
Although that US miscalculation in Paris gave the Soviets their first foothold in China, Mao never fit well into the Soviet mould. His philosophy of peasant revolution was heretical to strict Marxist-Leninism. He and Stalin thoroughly mistrusted one another. Moreover, both the military and financial aid that Mao received from the USSR was relatively paltry. But US mis-steps continued to push Mao toward the Soviets, above all the misguided US commitment to support Chiang as the China lobby’s darling.
The Chiang-Mao story is a complicated one. Both were allied with Sun Yat Sen who sought to maintain a common front between Communist forces and his Kuomintang Chinese Nationalist Party. Sun drew support from the Soviets for his “Northern Expedition “campaign against the bandit warlords. Sun appointed Chiang as his “Generalissimo” (sending Chiang to Moscow for some of his military training). But Mao, Chou en-Lai and their allies played a key role in mobilizing peasant support so that Chiang’s forces could take large swaths of countryside with minimal resistance (the famous Mao dictum that the people are the fish in which the revolutionary army must swim). After Sun’s death in 1925, however, Chiang sought to assert full control and set out to purge the Communist elements. A Communist purge was also part of his deal with the Soong family, and Chiang went about it with relish and brutality.
Chiang gained the upper hand in the late 1920s and early 1930s, leading to the famous 1934-35 Long March retreat by the Communist forces, during which Mao came to the fore as leader of the Communist revolutionaries. Initially hiding out in caves in Yenan, they built up their forces over time and were soon winning victories against Chiang’s demoralized and poorly-led forces. After the kidnapping of Chiang in the 1936 “Xian incident”, there was a period of collaboration against the Japanese invaders. But the civil war resumed in 1945 and continued for four years. In October, 1948, 300,000 of Chiang’s soldiers defected to Mao’s side. The following year, Chiang fled with another 300,000 of his troops to Taiwan. There he set up a brutal regime, instituting what was known as the “White Terror” and ruling for 38 years under martial law (1949-1987), the longest period of martial law in history, until it was recently surpassed by Syria.
There were voices within the US that recognized Chiang for what he was and sought to shift US policy accordingly. One such voice was that of John Service, a US diplomat who knew China well, spoke Chinese and had lived there for some time. In 1944, one month after D-Day, the US made its first contact with Mao via a CIA flight which took Service into Yenan. He was immediately struck by the difference between what he saw there and what he had witnessed in Chiang’s Chunking capital -much higher morale, more freedoms, more capable troops. Mao spent considerable time with Service. He urged that the US reconsider its support for Chiang, setting out a vision of potential US-Chinese cooperation combining US know-how and capital with Chinese labour to create an industrialized and modernized China. Some historians claim that Mao was being disingenuous and was already fully committed to an anti-US, Communist destiny for China. But Mao continued his outreach effort, offering in 1945 for he and/or Chou en Lai to meet at the highest levels. By that time, it was increasingly clear that Mao would defeat Chiang. Even Mei-Ling saw the writing on the wall and temporarily left Chiang to fly to Rio with big sister Ai-Ling (FDR later sent his private plane to bring them to New York). But the US stuck with Chiang to the bitter end.
Service continued to advocate for extending an open hand to Mao. Conscious of the China lobby influence, he pitched this directly to Henry Luce (not interested) and to FDR’s key foreign policy adviser Harry Hopkins (“we can’t deal with commies”). Perhaps Hopkins had forgotten how many times FDR met with Stalin. At one such meeting (Yalta in 1945), FDR promised Stalin that, if Russia joined the war against Japan, it could take back the Chinese territory it had lost to Japan. FDR had not consulted China on that but assumed that he could simply sort it out with Chiang later.
All hope of a reasonable US policy was lost when FDR posted Patrick J. Hurley as Ambassador to China in 1945. He was a former Secretary of War under Hoover, heavily marinated in the China lobby myths and supremely arrogant. Hurley would send highly misleading messages about events in China, making it look as though Chiang was gaining control. A measure of the problem is an incident that occurred when Hurley was away at Chiang’s Chunking capital, leaving Service temporarily in charge. Service and all the political officers drafted and unanimously signed a message which became known the “China Hands Cable”. It pointed to the corruption of Chiang, the futility of his military efforts, the fact that Mao was America’s best ally against Japan, and the desirability of the US building links with him. It was seen by many in State as a courageous act of truth-telling. It was of course ignored.
It is difficult to say whether there could have been a more benign US relationship with Mao’s China, but the US refusal to respond to Mao’s outreach nipped any possibility of that in the bud. The US commitment to Chiang was so complete that, in spite of Mao taking most of the fight to the Japanese, General MacArthur ordered that their surrender could only be to Chiang’s forces. In some regions, the US had to organize airlifts of Chiang soldiers to accept the Japanese surrenders, since none of Chiang’s troops had actually been there doing the fighting. The snubbing of Mao had no limits.
Who Lost China?
“Who lost China” became a prominent theme of the McCarthy era. The correct answer was of course: firstly, that the US never actually owned China to lose it, and secondly, that the post-WW II enmity between the US and China was brought about largely by bungling US policy-makers, influenced by the China lobby, who had hitched the US wagon in China to the losing horse.
But the McCarthy-ites did not like that answer. Instead, they turned to purging the State department of all its sensible China-hands. By the 1950s, there was not one Chinese speaker left in State Department. John Service was arrested by Edgar J. Hoover’s FBI and, although they could not come with any actual charge against him, he was one of the many fired from State. Moreover, China became off-limits for US media. In 1957, Baltimore-based reporter and civil rights activist William Worthy became the first US reporter to visit China since 1949 and had his passport taken away as a result. The already deep US ignorance of China was getting deeper.
The “who lost China” sentiment played a role in Truman’s defeat in the 1952 election and cast a long shadow over future US policy. It helped to draw Eisenhower into Vietnam where he set up the Potemkin country of South Vietnam headed by another Henry Luce favourite Ngo Dinh Diem (like Sun and Chiang, Diem had the Christian religious credentials which the US seemed to consider essential for running an Asian country - in this case, a Catholic leader for a largely Buddhist population). JFK also echoed the McCarthy-ite “who lost China” lines, supported the State department purge, and believed firmly in the “domino theory” (in fact, McCarthy was a good buddy of JFK – a fellow Irish-Catholic, a frequent visitor to Hyannis Port, and had dated two of JFK’s sisters). LBJ openly cited the “who lost China” fallout as one of the reasons why he could not withdraw from Vietnam. And Nixon was of course more or less McCarthyism resurrected until he undertook his famous mission to Mao.
The Korea Confrontation
The rabid McCarthy-ite anti-communism was fueled in part by the Korean War, the only time in recent memory when the US and China have confronted one another militarily. That war came out of 2 miscalculations. The North Koreans started the war because they underestimated the US determination to maintain control over South Korea. The war escalated into a bloodbath because the US undersestimated the Chinese determination to prevent an avowed enemy from having a presence on their border.
Post-war Korea began with an imaginary line drawn by US officials (the 38th parallel) and a US custodianship government arbitrarily established south of it. Reading the history of the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGK) is a bit like reading reports of what China is now doing in Hong Kong (but much bloodier) – strikes banned, protests crushed, protesters shot down in cold blood and summarily imprisoned, martial law declared, newspapers forcibly closed. The public sentiment was generally anti-US and the US soon departed, leaving things in the hands of a carefully-selected President Syngman Rhee (educated at US universities and yet another Southern Methodist). Rhee upped the ante on brutality, crushing opposition and murdering or jailing anyone suspected of communist sympathies. By early 1950, Rhee had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and another 300,000 suspected sympathizers enrolled in an official "re-education" movement called the Bodo League. When the Communist army attacked from the North, Rhee ordered the retreating South Korean forces to execute the prisoners, along with tens of thousands of the Bodo League members (although those war crimes were only uncovered later).
The North Korean attack had anticipated local support for reunification from the heavily anti-Rhee and anti-US population but had not anticipated that the US would intervene with such determination. Truman had made a speech indicating that the US would mot imtervene in any struggkles between the Communists and others in Korea or Taiwan. The North Koreans banked on that, but they should have been more mistrustful of what US Presidents say in speeches.
The North Koreans were quickly pushed back past the 38th parallel – so quickly that US war-hawks saw an opportunity to keep going and perhaps remove the whole peninsula from Communist control. Chief among the war-hawks were General MacArthur, Dean Acheson, and Senator William Nowland (known as the Senator from Formosa). It was the US counter-invasion of North Korea that brought in China. MacArthur did not believe that China would enter the war and made open (albeit unauthorized) threats about using nuclear weapons if they did so. But China’s resolve was equally firm. Chou en Lai sent a message to the US through the Indian Ambassador in Beijing saying that China would have to engage if US troops crossed the 38th parallel. As for the nuclear threats, he reportedly said: “We know they can bomb us and kill a few million but they can not defeat us on land and, without sacrifice, an independent nation can not be sustained”.
Chou’s message did not impress Truman who approved MacArthur crossing the 38th (although later firing him for his overly bellicose and self-important attitude and for the poor judgment he had shown). Within weeks of crossing the 38th, the US and UN forces were pushed back into the south. Thankfully, the nuclear option was not deployed, although Truman also threatened it in leveraging an acceptable peace deal with China. The war cost the lives of some 50,000 Americans, over 200,000 South Korean soldiers, over 3,000 UN troops (including some 312 Canadian battle deaths), an estimated 750,000 – 1,000,000 Chinese and North Korean soldiers, and God only knows how many civilian casualties.
Mutually Assured Destruction
The Korean War was not the last time that China faced a nuclear threat from the US. During the 1954-55 Taiwan Straits Crisis, involving a China-Taiwan confrontation over various islands, President Eisenhower again threatened China with a nuclear attack. This caused China to find a graceful exit. But not surprisingly, it was also the trigger for China’s development of its own nuclear weapons capacity, with the first Chinese test occurring in 1964. Since then, the US and China have achieved the equilibrium of mutually assured destruction. Unlike with the US-Soviet Cold War, however, the US and China also have a “mutually assured destruction” prospect in economic terms. China has grown to become the world’s second largest economy, the largest trading partner for the US, the largest US foreign creditor (about $ 1 trillion), and a key customer, investment location and vital supply chain link for so many US companies. China is also a larger trading partner for more countries globally than is the US, including being the largest merchandise trading partner of the EU.
It is now 50 years since the Kissinger-inspired ping-pong diplomacy of 1971 and the Nixon to China moment which followed in 1972. It is also 50 years since the PRC took its seat on the UN Security Council. As we consider whether or not we should recognize a Taliban government in Afghanistan, it is remarkable to think that, for nearly two decades, the West refused to recognize the PRC and insisted that Chiang Kai-Shek’s pretender Republic of China government in exile in Taiwan was entitled to the UNSC seat (the UN would not have formally backed the US in the Korean War except that neither the PRC nor the USSR could use their UNSC veto as they were not occupying their seats – the PRC because the West was blocking its entry, the USSR because it was boycotting in protest of that injustice).
That rapprochement between the US and China took place in large part because China and the USSR fell out over border clashes in 1969. It took some time after the Nixon visit for formalization of China-US diplomatic relations, but that eventually followed in 1979 (under Jimmy Carter). It included US acceptance of the One China principle, although Congress quickly passed the Taiwan Relations Act to blunt that commitment and to ensure ongoing arms sales to Taiwan.
I will not try to summarize the many twists and turns in China-US relations since then, but suffice it to say that the transient good-will of the Nixon moment is now long gone. As China has grown in military power, economic strength and global reach, US-China tensions have increased as a result of actions on both sides. Hopefully the prospect of “mutually assured destruction” is not in play, but a new Cold War definitely seems to be upon us.
So why do I recount all these historical stories rather than focus, like almost every Canadian commentator you can find, on the current misdeeds of the Chinese government? Well, mostly it is because I enjoy history and, if you have read this far, I assume that you must as well. But also, it is because I consider that even long-past history is relevant to an understanding the current context. As William Faulkner said, “the past is not over, it is not even really past”.
So it may be 120 years since the US marines stormed the Forbidden City to help keep the opium flowing and the missionaries preaching. But one gets the sense that the Chinese have not forgotten their Century of Humiliation, nor the China Exclusion Act, nor the US lionizing the gangster Chiang and spurning Mao, nor MacArthur’s aggression in Korea, nor the Truman/Eisenhower threats of a nuclear attack against China. All of this history continues to weigh on China and to stoke mistrust of “foreign devils”.
That is of course not to suggest that history can excuse the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Tiananmen Square or all the current Chinese misbehaviour, any more than the Holocaust can excuse Israeli war crimes in Gaza, or the tragedy of residential schools can justify the burning of Catholic churches. But we should at least be conscious of the fact that, for most of its historical relationship with the West, China has been more sinned against than sinning.
All nations are shaped by their history and pass on, through the generations, their version of historical narrative. Given the history of China-US relations, we should not be surprised that the Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats have such a large chip on their shoulders. The “make our country great again” sentiment seems to be a global phenomenon – Putin’s yearning for the good old days of a powerful USSR, Trump’s “back to Mayberry” nutters, Boris Johnson’s “bulldog Britain” Brexiting. The “wolf warriors” represent a similar nationalist sentiment, motivated partly by a desire to poke a stick in the eye of the Western powers who kept China under the thumb for so long.
Overall, the US approach to China has probably been marked more by misinformation and mis-steps than by malevolence. But looking at history, one can see why, when the Chinese sit across the table from their US counterparts, they begin with a harangue about the need for the US to abandon its “hegemonic attitude” and its “assumption of superiority”. That is the language with which the Chinese kicked off the March, 2021 US-China meeting in Alaska, the first with the new Biden Administration. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken responded with a diatribe about all of China’s current misbehaviours but then also acknowledged that “the US isn’t perfect either”. A bit of a nod to historical reality, although I suspect that he may have been going beyond his approved talking points.
Tags: Tom Macdonald