Tsinghua is China’s premier university, and counts China’s current leader Hu Jintao among its alumni. But it wouldn’t exist at all had it not been for a stunning act of American generosity.
How so? After the Boxer Rebellion was crushed in 1901, the ruling Qing Dynasty was forced to pay indemnities to foreign powers – in lieu of damage done to their property. The US chose to donate its reparations to the cause of Chinese education. The main consequence was the funding of Tsinghua, which matriculated its first students in 1911.
For the Chinese, the American gesture contrasted with the more self-interested behaviour routinely expected of the British, French and Russian powers of the imperial era.
But it was not necessarily a complete surprise. After all, when George Washington announced US independence, the new country was christened Meiguo by the Chinese, which translates as ‘the beautiful country’.
For their part, there were plenty of far-sighted Americans who understood the value of good Sino-American relations. In 1899 the US secretary of state, John Hay declared: “Whoever takes the time and trouble to understand China will have the key to politics for the next five centuries.”
But if early relations between one of the world’s oldest nations and one of its youngest seem to have started out on a reasonable footing, economic trends tilted the balance in America’s favour.
China was getting poorer and weaker, while America was getting richer and stronger. And with China’s domestic economy in decline, the country began to export its labour to the US. Simon Schama’s TV documentary American Future: A History recounts how Chinese workers proved indispensable to the construction of the Sierra Nevada portion of the Transcontinental Railway (“work too dangerous for anyone else to attempt,” notes Schama).
By the late 1860s – and thanks to the bravery and ingenuity of Chinese workers – America’s coasts were connected by rail for the first time, making the US a truly continental power. His coasts unified, this was the start of Uncle Sam’s golden age.
By the 1960s the disparity between America and China’s relative wealth was huge. Politically they held opposing world views. Technologically the countries were at polar extremes too. When Nixon visited in 1972, the American contingent brought its own Xerox copier. As Margaret Macmillan recounts in her book on the visit, the Chinese were fascinated by the machine, having never seen one before. “When the Americans realised the Chinese were copying all their documents out by hand, they arranged to leave their copier behind,” she writes.
When China ditched the planned economy, and set out on Deng Xiaoping’s path of economic reform, the relationship again evolved. The Chinese viewed the US as its teacher, says Sun Zhe, the director of Tsinghua’s Sino-US Relations Research Centre. But now a more confident China – with a booming economy and rising global influence – has seen its teacher apparently humbled by the 2008 financial crisis.
And dwindling Chinese admiration for the US economy was one finding of a recent online survey conducted by Globe magazine and the website Sina. Less than a third of the 16,726 respondents now associated the US with economic strength and prosperity; versus 69.1% when a similar poll was conducted in 1998 ahead of Bill Clinton’s presidential visit.
Obama’s more recent visit may well have cemented the impression of China and the US as far more ‘equal’ partners. For some the most symbolic moment of the trip involved Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a rain-sodden speech she was forced to beg an audience of American businesspeople to donate $20 million so that the United States could complete its Shanghai Expo pavilion. If the US wanted to give the impression of being enfeebled, this was precisely how to do it.
And just a week after Obama departed Beijing another announcement: Fang Fenglei’s Chinese firm Hopu recruited a new special adviser named Clark Randt. The significance: he just happens to be the former US ambassador to China.
Is this another telling indicator of China’s increasing sway?
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