China and the World
May 24, 2000
nce viewed by Americans as a distant, exotic empire, China today is an economic powerhouse of immediate relevance to the United States. Though U.S.-Chinese relations were once characterized by collaboration and mutual goodwill, the relationship soured after China's conversion to communism in 1949. Since that time, the stances of China and the United States toward one another have ranged from outright hostility to guarded efforts at reconciliation and accomodation. In its continuing effort to work out a relationship with China, the United States must weigh its reservations about China's environmental, political, economic, and human-rights practices against the importance of engaging in commerce and diplomacy with one of the world's most influential powers.
The Atlantic Monthly has reported on China for more than a century. Below is a selection of Atlantic articles from 1899 to the present, including seven from the past decade, which trace some of the central issues surrounding China's social, political, and economic development in the twentieth century, as well as its relationship with the United States and the world.
"China's Blue-Collar Blues," by Trevor Corson (February 2000)
Trevor Corson explained that although capitalist inroads in China have enabled some people to become very rich, conditions have in fact become much worse for the working class. Ironically, economic reform could end up leading to a classic Marxist revolt by the proletariat.
"Throughout the 1980s the promises made to workers, including the celebrated 'iron rice bowl,' had melted away as the reforms unleashed limited-term contracts, cheap migrant labor, income inequality, inflation, and official profiteering. Surveys of working-class opinion in the mid-1980s had exposed fury at factory managers who were acting like the unscrupulous capitalists of old China.
"Western corporations that subcontract in China with unscrupulous East Asian operators should be called to account, and human-rights organizations must continue to monitor the plight of Chinese labor. But cutting off direct U.S. business dealings—whether investment or exports—with China, as many human-rights activists demand, is likely only to pamper our consciences at the expense of desperate Chinese workers. In the short term, by joining the World Trade Organization, China does risk increased layoffs, owing to international competition. In the longer term, though, the more Westerners there are doing business in China, the better Chinese working conditions are likely to become. Punishing China economically in an effort to encourage American-style political change could, by undermining the power of economic reformers, have quite unintended consequences.... In attempting to kill off the last vestiges of Chinese communism, the United States would have orchestrated the rise of old-school Marxists instead."
"China: A World Power Again," by Robert D. Kaplan (August 1999)
the importance of the United States's relationship with China to international
security and the global economy, it would be unwise, Kaplan suggested, to seek
to impose American values and standards in the course of strategic
"After a 200-year hiatus—since the Qing Dynasty began to weaken, in the early
nineteenth century—China is returning to the world stage as a great power.
That may be usual for China, but it is unusual for the West, given that the
last period of Chinese greatness occurred when countries were far more isolated
than they are today. As the recent revelations of Chinese nuclear spying in the
United States demonstrate, ascendant powers tend to be particularly aggressive
and crude..... The United States-China relationship, so prone to cultural and
historical misinterpretation, could be among the most unstable great-power
relationships in history.....
"However justified our positions may be, dealing with China will require cool
realpolitik and scholarly know-how, not self-righteous hysteria."
"Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," by Peter Hessler (February 1999)
Many Americans vilify China for its subjugation of Tibet—especially for what they see as a Chinese effort to obliterate Tibet's native culture. Peter Hessler explained that Tibet has in fact benefited from China's management in many quantifiable ways, and that American criticism of China's treatment of Tibet is to some extent hypocritical, given America's past treatment of Native Americans.
"Tibet is appealing to us precisely because it's not modern, and we have idealized its culture and anti-materialism to the point where it has become, as Orville Schell says, 'a figurative place of spiritual enlightenment in the Western imagination—where people don't make Buicks, they make good karma....'
"'Unless you're a complete Luddite,' Schell says, 'and don't believe in roads, telephones, hospitals, and things like that, then I think China must be credited with a substantial contribution to the modern infrastructure of Tibet. In this sense Tibet needs China. But that's not to diminish the hideous savageness with which China has treated Tibet....'
"In America there are many FREE TIBET bumper stickers, but they sit next to license plates that often bear the names of forgotten tribes who succumbed to the same forces of expansion and modernization now threatening Tibet."
"Our Real China Problem," by Mark Hertsgaard (November 1997)
The price of China's surging economy, Mark Hertsgaard reported, is a vast degradation of the environment, with planetary implications. Hertsgaard spent six weeks traveling through China investigating the country's growing environmental crisis. He found that although the Chinese government understands the need to protect the environment, it fears that doing the right thing could be political suicide.
"Human rights, China's possible admission to the World Trade Organization, its
alleged Washington influence-buying—these are the issues that have made
international headlines in the months leading up to this fall's Sino-U.S.
summit. But soon China's environmental crisis is bound to command equal
"Even the government's official policy pronouncements, which invariably
overaccentuate the positive, admit that environmental degradation in China will
get worse before it gets better. For China's newfound wealth has only whetted
its citizens' appetite for more. China's huge population wants to join the
global middle class, with everything that entails: cars, air-conditioners,
closets full of clothes, jet travel....
"China's huge population and grand economic ambitions make it the most important environmental actor in the world today, with the single exception of the United States. Like the United States, China could all but single-handedly make climate change, ozone depletion, and a host of other hazards a reality for people all over the world. What happens in China is therefore central to one of the great questions of our time: Will human civilization survive the many environmental pressures crowding in on it at the end of the twentieth century?"
"China's Strategic Culture," by Warren I. Cohen (March 1997)
Warren I. Cohen reviewed Alistair Iain Johnston's Cultural Realism:
Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, which argued that
contrary to conventional wisdom, China's strategic culture is not
primarily defensive. "Johnston's findings," Cohen wrote, "suggest the need for a
re-examination of the strategic behavior of the People's Republic of China."
"In recent years, especially during the Clinton presidency, Washington has
signaled Beijing that the United States cares about little except trade, and
that American concern for human rights in China, for the oppressed Tibetans,
for democracy in Hong Kong, for nuclear nonproliferation, is merely symbolic --
rhetoric designed to be culturally acceptable to Congress and the electorate.
As the Chinese have violated their agreements, mistreated their people, and
intimidated their neighbors, American businesspeople and the U.S. Department of
Commerce have assured them that their market for goods and capital is essential
to the U.S. economy. Not unreasonably, they have assumed that if they step up
their intimidation of Taiwan, they have nothing to fear from the United
"The powerful China we have every reason to expect in the twenty-first century
is likely to be as aggressive and expansionist as China has been whenever it
has been the dominant power in Asia—except when its leaders have reason to
believe that potential adversaries have both the power and the determination to
"China's Gilded Age," by Xiao-huang Yin (April 1994)
Xiao-huang Yin, a professor at Occidental College, described the
changes in China's society wrought by Deng's drive toward a free-market
economy. The author reported that since he left China in 1985, there had been an urban
economic miracle resulting in the creation of "Chinese Carnegies and
Rockefellers" who were "more successful than their American counterparts." Also
newly emergent, Yin wrote, was a middle class that could afford color TVs and
refrigerators—considered luxuries only ten years before. But with money had
come pervasive corruption, and the national government had been loath to crack
down on it for fear of losing control of the direction of China's economic
"A distant cousin who was a high school teacher until 1986 told me
modestly that he had made "a little money" by opening a factory that produces
bristle brushes for export to America. He drove me to his new summer house in
his new Mercedes-Benz 500SEL, one of his three luxury cars....
"One of my relatives, a retired worker, had an operation last spring. Although she was fully covered by the state medical insurance, she had to pay bribes to virtually everyone involved in her treatment, from the surgeon to the cleaning woman....
"A petty cadre from Gansu, a poor northwestern province, complained to me, 'You know, the relationship between us inlanders and you guys on the coast is just like that between underdeveloped countries and industrial nations. We supply you with raw materials and cheap migrant labor, but you turn around and sell us secondhand products at high prices. The gap bleeds us inland people of capital and resources. You robbed us of everything, from money to women!'"
"Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao," by Orville Schell (December 1992)
Orville Schell considered the importance of Chairman Mao's
recent emergence as a pop culture icon in China. Though the phenomenon was perceived as a
heartening reaffirmation of traditional party values by many hard-line
Communist leaders, Schell suggested it might instead indicate
an erosion of socialist values by the forces of commercialism.
"Because Mao has been reduced to a bauble on a cheap key ring or a blurry
plastic-encased photo dangling from the rearview mirror of a taxi, it is hard
to avoid the conclusion that in certain respects the Mao revival is also a
"Whatever the intra-party politics behind the revival of these songs, it is not
easy to keep a straight face while listening to a country-and-western rendition
of 'Mao and the People Together' with Hawaiian-guitar solos between verses, or
'The Sun Is Most Red and Chairman Mao Is Our Most Beloved' embellished with
electronic church bells and sung in close harmony."
"China's Andrei Sakharov," by Orville Schell (May 1988)
Schell profiled Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, whose outspoken
criticisms of socialism and the Communist party had spurred student protest
movements, planted seeds of doubt in the minds of party members, and frequently
landed him in trouble with the party leadership. Schell potrayed Fang as a hero in
the crusade for modernization and democratization in mainland China.
"Chinese students, who had almost completely lost the kind of socialist idealism that had so distinguished their parents' generation during earlier phases of the Chinese Communist Revolution, now seemed perched on the precipice of a whole new system of beliefs. In the ideological vacuum of the 1980s they thirsted for someone and something to believe in.... Nowhere was the threadbare nature of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought more evident than
in the way many of these young Chinese intellectuals found themselves drawn to
the gospel of democracy as preached by Fang Lizhi."
"Dragon Under Glass: Time for a New China Policy," by James C. Thomson Jr. (October 1967)
James C. Thomson Jr.—a history professor and a former special assistant to the U.S. State Department—argued that the time had come for the United
States to reconcile itself with Communist China, and to begin to initiate civil
interaction with its government. To be able to progress to a more constructive
relationship with China, he suggested, America would need first to overcome its
bitterness over China's switch to a Communist system.
"No other nation in Asia had been on the receiving end of so much American
goodwill, good works, and philanthropy. No other nation had been the focus of
more persistent and grandiose American illusions. From the late eighteenth
century onwards we had sent first traders, then our missionaries --
evangelists, doctors, educators, technical experts—and our diplomats as
"No wonder, then, that it shocked us to 'lose' China to an alien ideology and a
strong, hostile regime that bit our helping hand....
"It is high time to correct a deep-seated sense on the part of our allies, our
friends and the neutrals that America is somehow demented on the subject of
"China: Time for a Policy," by John K. Fairbank (April 1957)
The renowned China scholar John K. Fairbank evaluated policy options toward
newly Communist mainland China and considered the extent to which the United
States should commit itself to supporting and defending an independent Taiwan.
"For us, the organized wrath of 600 million people in China is not something to
go out and seek; yet by our principles we have little alternative....
"Our opportunity and that of our friends on Taiwan is to help develop there an
economy, a political process, and a body of trained personnel, within the
Chinese world but free of Peking's totalitarian control, as an investment for a
happier day when these same ideals may apply to all the Chinese
"A Plea for the Recognition of the Chinese Republic," by Ching Chun Wang (January 1913)
This Chinese author proudly declared that "we have transformed our immense
country from an empire of four thousand years' standing into a modern
democracy." He asked that the United States lend its support to the fledgling
government through official recognition: "She stretches out her hands to
America first, because she prefers to have her best friend be the first in
giving her this deserved encouragement."
"We come forward with hands and hearts open to join the sisterhood of nations,
and all we ask is that the world will permit us to join its company. We are
born into the world as a nation, and we wish to be registered as a part of the
"We see no reason why the Powers, especially the United States, which often
boasts of being the mother and champion of republicanism, should refrain from
simply declaring and acknowledging what is a fact. Indeed, after having known
how these Powers endeavored to induce us to admit them, and how eager they
apparently were in forcing China to open her doors, we find it hard to
understand why the same Powers should remain so indifferent."
"A Parliament for China," by Paul S. Reinsch (December 1909)
Paul S. Reinsch described China's efforts to transform its position in the
world of global politics from that of a weak, exploited pawn to that of a
competent, international power by developing a Western-style parliament.
"Chinese society is becoming political. Hitherto it has lived from
generation to generation by custom, with no consciousness of political aims or
purposes.... Now, all of a sudden, the political impulse is strongly awakening
in the breast of the Chinese people....
"It will no longer do to drift, to let customs take care of themselves, to deal
with foreign nations from day to day in compromises, which never go to the root
of a policy.... The intellectual and responsible among the Chinese people are
feeling a deep need for a conscious expression of national policy, and for the
use of careful reason and long-headed foresight, as well as calm firmness, in
the management of their national affairs."
"The Chinese Boycott," by John W. Foster (January 1906)
John W. Foster criticized discrimination against Chinese immigrants in
America as racist, and emphasized that such behavior was especially offensive
given the pains the United States had taken to secure friendly diplomatic
relations with the Chinese government. The United States had averred
"reciprocal and sincere friendship" with China, and had granted China "most
favored nation" status in 1868. Yet the United States persisted in mistreating
and expelling Chinese immigrants. It was this behavior, Foster explained, that
had incited a Chinese boycott of American trade that was in effect at the time
he wrote this article.
"The treatment which the Chinese residents have received at the hands of
hoodlums, ruffians, race-haters, and mobs has been a disgrace to our
civilization; but that has not been so shameful as their treatment by the
officials of Federal and local governments....
"The laws and regulations and the harsh treatment of Chinese subjects in the
United States have been the occasion of frequent and reiterated complaints by
the Chinese Legation to the Department of State. That Department has given them
a sympathetic hearing and forwarded them from time to time to Congress or the
Bureau of Immigration, where they have fallen upon deaf ears....
"It is not to our credit as a Christian and liberal-minded people and as a just
government that ... not until the boycott began to be felt was any check placed
upon the harsh treatment of and unwarranted discrimination against the Chinese
in or seeking admission to our country."
"The Break-up of China, and Our Interest in It" (August 1899)
In this unsigned article, the author pointed out that in the wake of
the Sino-Japanese war, other nations were taking advantage of the Chinese
government's extreme weakness to exploit China's "immense general market." If
America did not move to "buttress the tottering colossus of China," the
favorable diplomatic and trade relations that the United States had long
enjoyed with the dynastic Chinese government would be in jeopardy.
"It is to be hoped that our government is silently exercising the utmost
vigilance in behalf of our commercial privileges on the continent of Asia.
Failure to do so might not be politically disastrous to the present
administration, but posterity will not forgive nor history condone faults of
omission or indifference.... A very valuable document, 'Commercial China in
1899,' has been issued by the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department
at Washington, and gives in a concise and intelligible form the main facts and
prospects of the situation. A wide dissemination of this pamphlet is earnestly
to be desired; and every factor is to be encouraged that brings home to
American manufacturers and merchants the opportunity that awaits them,—an
opportunity that, by a wise foreign policy and far-sighted commercial methods,
can add immensely to our trade and to our international influence."
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