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China Has Begun to Shape and Manage the US, Not the Other Way Around

Published: October 22, 2019
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Source: The Atlantic

From the late 19th century up to World War II, Americans were seized by the idea of transforming China into a Christian, capitalist America on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

The word plastic pops up again and again in American statements about China from that era. China is “plastic” in the hands of “strong and capable Westerners,” announced President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. “China has become plastic after centuries of rigid conventionalism,”declared Selskar M. Gunn, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in May 1933.

But from the beginning, Americans were also afraid that China—or the Chinese—would change them, too. In 1870, following the Civil War, Congress limited naturalization to white people and black people. Later, the United States tried to inoculate itself against the influence of the Chinese by banning many of them from America’s shores. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S. Congress passed a series of racist immigration laws which would not be significantly modified until World War II, when China was an ally in America’s fight against Japan. It looked bad for the U.S. to deny Chinese the right to travel in America while Chinese under American command were dying on Asian battlefields.

Then came the Cold War, and instead of changing China, Americans sought to quarantine it. Fear of China in the United States was at a fever pitch in the years following the Korean War as Chinese were portrayed in American films, magazines, and books as possessing magical powers to brainwash average Americans. U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions on China were far more onerous than they were on the Soviet Union. After a while, the impracticability of such isolation became pretty obvious. Even Frank Sinatra weighed in during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1963, calling for “Red China” to be given a seat in the United Nations. “I don’t happen to think you can kick 800,000,000 Chinese under the rug and simply pretend that they don’t exist,” Sinatra declared.

In the 1970s, when the United States reopened its relations with China, the pendulum swung back again. Americans reached into their toolkit and, surprise, pulled out the same tool they had used before: The U.S. launched a second campaign to remake China in its image. On January 24, 1980, Congress granted most-favored-nation trading status to the Communist regime, cutting tariffs on Chinese goods to the same rate offered to America’s friends and allies. MFN status had been reserved for countries with free-market economies and basic political and civil rights, including the right to emigrate. In 1980, China met none of these criteria.

Although there was probably a good geopolitical argument to make for granting China MFN status, the Carter administration was compelled to justify its decision by appealing to America’s idea of its higher purpose in China. Beijing deserved MFN status because, Americans were told, China was on an unstoppable march to a market economy with free and fair elections. As Representative Bill Alexander, a Jimmy Carter supporter from Arkansas, told the House the day MFN status was approved, “Seeds of democracy are growing in China.”          

This paternalistic attitude that we could change China persisted, in its second instantiation, for about 40 years. Significantly, this idea’s evil twin—a fear of China changing us—became less pronounced. American certainty that influence ran down a one-way street appeared in statements from the National Security Council and the State Department, which, no matter the political party or administration, were littered with expressions such as “shaping” or “managing” China’s rise. This self-confidence loomed large in the debate over China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, told Congress that China’s accession to the WTO would “sow the seeds of freedom for China’s 1.2 billion citizens.”

I heard this mantra—China is becoming a normal nation! China wants the same thing as us! We are changing China!— nonstop during the decades I spent in China from American diplomats, positive that we would turn China into a more liberal country, and blithe to any worries that China could transform us.

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