China: What Engagement Should Mean

December 1, 1996 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: Chinese nationalism

China: What Engagement Should Mean

Mini Teaser: The challenge of an ascendant China now requires a consistent, steady, long-term view.

by Author(s): Robert B. Zoellick

The United States enjoyed a united policy toward China for two
decades. That unity ended with Tiananmen Square. But the challenge of
an ascendant China now requires a consistent, steady, long-term view.
The United States must rebuild a bipartisan policy toward China based
on a strategy that can be supported by successive presidents and
Congresses, Republicans and Democrats.

Past U.S. policies toward China have reflected two very different
national traditions. One has drawn images of China, its people, and
its future salvation from America's missionary experience. The other
approach has viewed China in light of the realist's concepts of
power, national interest, and balancing relationships among great
states. At times, the United States has managed to fuse these two
traditions in an unlikely amalgam, although the compound has usually
displayed cracks created by countervailing forces.

Missionaries, Heretics, and Romantics

America has had a special relationship with China. We have
romanticized, and then demonized, China and its people, time and
again, in a pendulum of alternating attitudes, which led in turn to
swings in policy. America's missionary experience with China helped
shape these views. Our first widespread public contact with China
came from efforts in the nineteenth century to convert the Chinese to
Christianity, to rescue them from their condition, to educate them,
to make them like us.

It was an effort that tapped some of the best American impulses. The
missionary movement reached deep into Christian churches across the
United States, certainly far beyond the elite seaboard groups that
considered themselves the guardians of U.S. foreign policy. Millions
of children learned about China at Sunday school, or from evening
programs with returning missionaries who brought home pictures and
stories, and then asked for nickels and dimes to help the Chinese.

The missionaries' influence also extended to more select company.
After all, many missionaries to China were trained at Yale,
Princeton, Oberlin, and other leading schools, and their children
returned to become political leaders, scholars, and foreign service
officers. They became the American interpreters of China.

The children of missionaries also wrote books that influenced
America's attitude toward China. The most famous and influential of
these writers was Pearl Buck, whose book The Good Earth received the
Pulitzer Prize, sold 1.5 million copies, became a Broadway play, and
was transformed into a movie seen in the United States by an
estimated 23 million people. Nor was this a singular example of the
infatuation with China in America's popular culture. For later
generations, the popular film The Sand Pebbles portrayed the
confusing experience of the U.S. Navy and missionaries in a
bewildering China caught between the old ways and the new, while The
Last Emperor pictured Pu Yi's and China's twentieth-century journeys.

The images of China created by the missionaries were reinforced by
America's trading ties. The romantic stories of China clippers,
exotic lands, and vast fortunes to be made--or lost--captured
America's imagination. Unlike Europeans, Russians, and Japanese who
grasped territories from disintegrating Qing China, U.S. Secretary of
State John Hay stood for an "Open Door" that would allow all to
prosper from the "great China trade."

The romantic, missionary view of China has had important implications
for U.S. policies. When the Chinese have embraced the United States
and its ways, Americans have been smitten. So Americans admired and
committed themselves to Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, the Soong
family, the Flying Tigers, the YMCA and YWCA in China, Christian
schools, the stoic dignity of enduring peasants, and, in a later era,
ping-pong diplomacy and the modernizer Deng Xiaoping.

But when China refused to be as Americans imagined it, or worse,
rejected America, the United States responded with the combination of
fury and hurt reserved for heretics. Whether Taiping rebels, Boxers,
"Red" Chinese, "human wave" assaults in Korea, or thegray old men who
crushed the young demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, America could
not understand why these Chinese would not be like the United States
or would even attack it. So the pendulum of attitudes would swing,
from embrace to rejection and back again. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who
for centuries viewed themselves as living in the "Middle Kingdom", a
place above the rest of the earth if still short of heaven, must have
had a terrible time figuring out the all-too-earthy Americans.

Thucydides, Napoleon, and the Realists

There is another view of China--that of the realist. Realists have
been concerned with China's power, not its soul. They trace their
perspective to Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian
War. Thucydides wrote that the war among the great city-states of his
day was the inevitable result of the growth of Athens' power, and of
the fear it inspired in Sparta. Centuries later, another student and
practitioner of power, Napoleon, noted that China was a sleeping
giant, and that the world would quake when it awoke.

Essay Types: Essay