China Syndrome


The whole history of US-Chinese relations could be written as a history of the delusions held by US policy makers and business interests about China. What China actually was, or is, entered into matters very little, aside from occasional US attempts at meddling and influencing the course of events in China. Most of the latter ended in disarray and confusion.

Sharp-eyed Yankee traders developed an interest in the fabled China market already in the 18th century, even before we won our independence from Britain. The notion of the China market grew and grew throughout the 19th century. Missionaries did a rough head count of the zillions upon zillions of Chinese and saw enough potential converts to get all the missionaries into heaven, bar none. Merchants considered that if every Chinaman bought a pair of shoes, that would indeed be a lot of shoes.

Now, I am not here to make fun of missionaries and merchants. If they wish to pay for their own efforts and take their own chances, who could complain? It’s true that the missionaries were instrumental in creating a number of sentimental illusions about China and the Chinese which were of value, later, to other people; that may be a problem of sorts. It is hard, however, to separate this case from the common American habit of fostering illusions about other countries, which – up against reality – shatter, leaving policy makers and public intellectuals feeling jilted and angry. It might have been better not to have had the illusions in the first place. None of this mattered until politicians and professors got into the act.


Coming down through the same 19th century, the Chinese empire had its own problems. The clunky, Confucianist bureaucratic regime ran up against population pressures and foreign devils. The Opium War comes to mind, in which Britain demanded that China say yes to drugs – that was a simpler time – and acquired Hong Kong in the unequal contest.

Internal strains on the regime somehow brought forth, or allowed, at mid-century the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion in which millions (six to twenty) of Chinese died. This, at a time when we were impressed with the figure of 620,000 deaths (as well we might be) in the Late Unpleasantness of 1861-1865. Covert aid from Western powers helped sustain the imperial state. After all, the Western imperialists needed some kind of regime in China to collaborate with them, even if they did not wish it to be powerful enough to resist their encroachments in the name of trade and Christianity.

History rocks along in funny paths. In the course of sending aid to the Chinese regime, French forces stopped off in Indo-China (1858) long enough to lay the groundwork for their very helpful colonial presence there. This was so helpful that a lot of Americans of my generation were killed or maimed dealing with some of the results. Not that we actually had to be there, but once someone else has set up a hopeless mess, how could we ask the United States not to make things worse? C’est rire.

Anyway, although the Chinese imperial system survived the shock of the T’ai-p’ing rebellion, China came under increasing Western pressure. The Germans, the Brits, the French, the Russians, and others could count, too, and they all wanted to sell that same pair of shoes to every Chinaman. They too had missionaries. The whole thing became very competitive in a national-mercantilist and imperialist sort of way.

In short order, Western powers helped themselves to exclusive zones of trade and demanded extraterritorial status for their nationals operating in China (the famous ‘Unequal Treaties’). Reacting to Western intrusion, the Japanese ruling elite repackaged and modernized the Japanese state, rose to regional prominence, and began casting its eyes in the direction of China as well. The famous Chinese "paranoia" about which we have heard so much lately may have something to do with this awkward period in Chinese history.


The uncompromising German laissez faire liberal Eugen Richter said of the Weltpolitik (world policy) of Wilhelm II that it really meant "that one wishes to be present everywhere, where something has gone wrong." This could well be the motto of US foreign policy since 1898. I won’t rehearse things said here before, except to say that important figures in the US northeastern political, economic, and intellectual elite convinced themselves by the late 1890s that an aggressive politically-backed push into Asian markets was the sovereign remedy for all that ailed American society. This became sloganized as the Open Door policy and became an article of faith and an ideological assumption of US policy makers despite the policy’s failure to accomplish much in the actually-existing China.

Taking over the Philippine Islands from Spain, as a useful forward position facing the fabled China market, the US policy makers threw themselves into the thicket of competition for economic and political advantage in China. The famous Open Door Notes (1900, 1901) were one salvo, which did not, however, have much immediate impact on the behavior of the European powers with interests in China. The Americans said, in effect, let us all compete fairly in all of China (wink, wink: we shall be the strongest competitor and inherit the whole market).

Next, the US participated in the international military operations to suppress the Box Rebellion. The ‘Boxers’ were an anti-foreign political movement, whose members attacked and killed Westerners in their enclaves, possibly with the connivance of the Empress Dowager, who was getting tired of the foreign devils. Now it is understandable that once you’ve got yourself entrenched on someone else’s real estate, you will defend your lives and interests by force, but that does not alter the fact that there was more than enough room for Chinese resentment at the political capitalism of the foreign powers. This is a very tricky area, indeed, and if we grant the practical right of the Westerners to combine forces to defeat the Boxers, we should soon have to defend some things done by Afrikaners in 19th century South Africa (as I would indeed do), and then all politically correct hell breaks loose, so let’s not go there in any depth.

With utter cynicism and greed, the victorious Western powers then imposed on China the most unequal treaty of all, which included an overinflated indemnity to be paid out of Chinese customs receipts in silver (the hard money of the Far East), but not in a lump sum, of course, but over a period of years so that the Western powers could draw more interest. The various intrigues of American railroad magnates helped provoke a reaction within China’s narrow educated class, which broadly overlapped with the bureaucracy itself, leading to the beginnings of the Chinese Revolution (from 1912). With the overthrow of the dynasty, ineffective republican rule soon gave way to equally unsuccessfully central military rule, and then to breakup into local warlord regimes based on the landlord class. Meanwhile, the Europeans had taken up their First Global Bloodbath (1914-1918) and weren’t so much on hand to complicate things further. Woodrow Wilson even volunteered his countrymen for the slaughter. A generous man.


Radical and republican forces coalesced in the Kuomintang party (old spelling). The writ of the KMT did not run all that far, and localized conflict between warlords continued. The fledgeling communist movement sought to participate in the KMT, but was brutally purged by Chiang Kai-shek. Thus began the famous Long March.

The Soviet Union sought to intervene to influence the political outcome in its big, populous (and therefore dangerous), neighbor, but in the end tended to prefer dealing with Chiang, as a pillar of stability. The Maoists were very resentful of this, even after coming to power. Matters were further complicated by Japanese attempts to annex Manchuria, first economically, then politically from the early 1930s. The presence of US gunboats well up the Chinese rivers suggests that US policy makers had a stake as well.

The outbreak of war between the US and Japan in late 1941 added to Japanese overstretch. The KMT pretended to fight the Japanese, absorbed large quantities of US aid and money, and occasionally fought the communists. The communists fought the Japanese and the KMT, while building up good will with mild rule and hard money at a time when the KMT landlord regime set off hyperinflation and looted and abused everyone in its path. The urban business classes were driven into the arms of the communists, hoping for a break as the "national bourgeoisie" (Mao’s line about them at the time). Anyone who thought Chiang was a friend of "free enterprise" had not read his social-nationalist book.

In December 1949 the Maoists chased the KMT government and army off the mainland. The KMT bureaucrats imposed themselves on the Taiwanese people – in a near perfect example of a conquest state. Granted, China had long claimed Taiwan – and any Chinese government would claim Taiwan, much as certain parties claim there can only be one Ireland (I am not interested in the merits of such arguments, here), but, truth to tell, the actually-existing Taiwanese people were not consulted when the KMT arrived there.


By now, the heroic and cosmic Cold War had come into being. One legacy of the KMT, dating from the 1930s, was the China Lobby. This army of American Congressmen, publicists, and front men claimed sainthood for Chiang and constantly pushed US foreign policy in the direction of greater intervention in Asian affairs. Their story was almost told in the early 1960s by Ross Y. Koen, but the Lobby’s lingering influence suppressed his book, which resurfaced in the 1970s during the Vietnam business.

There was also a sort of Maoist Lobby – much investigated by Joe McCarthy – of academics and others partial to Mao as an "agrarian reformer." Yes, Owen Lattimore was undoubtedly a Marxist. Joe McCarthy was too right, but it did not follow, logically or pragmatically, that anyone in the US had actually "lost" China or that it had ever conceivably been in the power of the US to prevent the Chinese Revolution from running its course. To that extent, the famous (rather defensive) State Department White Paper was correct. In a complex world, Joe McCarthy and the State Department can both be right, but not about the exact same things.


Cold War begat hot war in Korea. General MacArthur, exceeding his orders, undertook to annex North Korea. This did not work out well, and in the meantime, the usual sloppy and excessive (even hysterical) use of US firepower right up to the Chinese frontier made the Chinese Communist government anxious. Now I doubt that communism, as such, completely explains Chinese intervention in the Korean War. The Manchu Dynasty, had it still existed, might have found the US posture, er, troubling.

US policy makers had never been happy about the Chinese revolution. Relations froze in Cold War mode for two decades. From 1949 on, the new bureaucratic communist dynasty undertook mass murders well surpassing those of Stalin and Hitler, proceeded to destroy such economic life as China had, and showed its East-Is-Red ultra-revolutionary face to the world. The so-called Cultural Revolution rounded out the world-historically colossal crimes of Mao and his friends and was, accordingly, taken up as a great model of human liberation by China scholars and trendy leftists throughout the West.

The left-wing China Lobby was in the ascendant, and with the unpopular Vietnam War, the right-wing China Lobby was in decline. In the end, Nixon, a politician immune to being red-baited, "played the China card" in what began as a cynical great-power maneuver against the Soviets. Trade grew and we finally had our China market. The "capitalist-roaders" stayed on course, unleashing immense increases in productivity and prosperity.


One might think this was enough for a while. It might be premature to demand that China do everything our way on a set schedule. But modesty and self-restraint are not hallmarks of the US empire in its late phase. To bring China in line with present US cultural standards, we would first have to finish the missionaries’s work, convert them all to Protestantism, and then tell them it’s all been a mistake, and they must now take up the cause of scientific materialism and/or post-modern angst.

I don’t think we can export our unraveling culture to China. Better stick with the shoes. The Chinese will, in all likelihood, modernize Confucianism and be fairly happy with the results.

I have said nothing about the current ‘crisis’ nor do I wish to. The Chinese are said to be

paranoid, inscrutable, and some other things. Well, frankly, after their relations with the West, they have their reasons. We’re not going to remould them all with scholarships to Yale or Stanford. They are Chinese. They are, in that respect, foreign. I think we should accept that, or at least take it into account.

Here we speak of one of the most ancient and original of the world civilizations. Its broad outlines were set long before those of our civilization, even if ours rests in part on Near Eastern foundations which predate Chinese civilization by a thousand years. An ancient script with an enormous literature, Confucian philosophy, and an indigenous approach to riverine agriculture – China can draw on all these plus the energies liberated by the transition to a market economy.

Does this mean that the Chinese state will often or always behave well? No. But one might ask if the US state often or always behaves well. There may be those who say ‘yes.’ To take on that claim would involve us in perhaps the deepest of all layers of American delusion. Those who are not open to the possibility that there is a US empire and that empires do bad things, more often than not, are the most unrealistic of all.

Should we be realistic about the Chinese state? Insofar as it matters to us, yes. Should be realistic about the US state? Even more so. After all, we share some territory with it, for better or worse.