As Donald Trump talks up tariffs aimed at reducing his country’s trade deficit with the Chinese, a new book tells the story of how Trump’s political party – the Republicans – have engaged with China over the last 250 years and aided its rise.
The China ties began after the American War of Independence as the new nation sought foreign trade opportunities, particularly with Asia. China was the source of some of the most valuable imports to the United States, particularly tea and porcelain. Merchants from New England set up trade links directly with Canton, and fortunately they were able to supply something that the Chinese wanted: ginseng, a variety of which grows wild in North America.
Thus began a commercial relationship that David Petriello describes in The Republican Party and the Rise of China: How an American Political Party Helped Create Modern China.
China continued to be the source of many highly-desired goods through the nineteenth century as well as people: Chinese ‘coolie’ labour accompanied the 1850s Gold Rush. This led to tremendous unrest in California, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was designed to limit immigration. Advocates of the ban were predominantly Democrats, representing labour; those against were mostly Republicans, including business interests like the railway barons (Chinese labour was vital to the building of transcontinental rail line in the 1860s).
The hostility created by the Opium Wars and the Exclusion Act was redressed to some degree by the Republican presidency of William McKinley (1897-1901). His Open Door policy saw expanded trade relations. Theodore Roosevelt (McKinley’s vice president, who took over after McKinley’s assassination) loosened the limits on Chinese immigration further, arguing that the US should welcome students and professionals from China.
After the Boxer Rebellion, Roosevelt tried again to build links between China and his far younger nation, directing indemnity payments due to Washington be used to establish Tsinghua University. Boxer Indemnity Scholarships were also created to bring Chinese students to the US.
President Herbert Hoover (1928-1932) made his fortune in China as a minerals engineer (he opened the country’s first major coal mine in the late nineteenth century). His experiences left him sympathetic to the Chinese people, particularly refugees. When he occupied the White House, the Republican leader directed the American Red Cross to assist the Chinese during a famine, and the US Farm Board sold China discounted wheat as another humanitarian gesture.
Despite being allies in the Second World War, there was rupture in US-China relations when Mao Zedong came to power and the world fell into its Cold War divisions. The Korean and Vietnam wars kept relations frosty until another Republican entered the White House. Richard Nixon’s 1972 China visit brought an important breakthrough in diplomatic relations, although Petriello draws a direct link from the Republicans’ relationship with China from the Open Door Policy of McKinley and Roosevelt to the reopening of the door by Nixon, and to China next joining the WTO in late 2001 during the presidency of George W Bush.
That president’s father (George HW Bush) had served as US Consul in Beijing during the Ford administration, and had later walked a difficult diplomatic path after violence in the Chinese capital shocked the world in 1989 (Bush senior sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on a secret mission to Beijing just a month after the crisis, see WiC401). Bush’s experience of living in China was vital in repairing fractured ties and understanding.
Petriello’s book uses the prism of the GOP leadership to connect the dots in explaining how the Chinese and US economies became so entwined (think ‘Chimerica’).
At times it seems a bit of a stretch to rely so heavily on the Republicans to frame the narrative, but the approach offers a concise explanation of how China’s relationship with the US has evolved in the last 250 years. Not that it is first to do so: John Pomfret’s book The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom (see WiC355) came out last year and remains a definitive read. One person unlikely to read Petriello’s book: the current Republican leader.
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