The goal is likely to try to stoke Sinophobia, blame others for the administration’s own failings and make China for Trump’s 2020 campaign what Mexico was for his 2016 campaign. Four years ago, Trump learned how to win an election by stoking racial and economic resentment against a foreign other, Mexico. This time, the perfect storm of covid-19, Hong Kong, the unsettled trade war with China and significant human rights abuses in Xinjiang makes China the Trump campaign’s ideal distraction and scapegoat.
Yet, even as political tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, and coronavirus-related anti-Asian xenophobia persists throughout the West, some depressing hallmarks of U.S.-Chinese history provide counterintuitive hope for the future. Despite Sinophobia being as old as U.S.-Chinese relations, centuries of mutual economic self-interest and cooperation have repeatedly helped reduce these prejudices from a violent boil down to a simmering resentment.
In February 1784, the first American ship destined for China left New York, years before the United States was even a nation. The Empress of China was a privately financed “experimental voyage” to test the Chinese market for American goods and visa versa. Clearly, American farmers, sailors, consumers, merchants and investors could not wait to do business with China.
The Empress was a national project that brought together the three major maritime ports of New England and the Mid-Atlantic: Philadelphia brought the money, Boston built the ship (originally as a privateer), and New York had a harbor that was not frozen solid. What makes this an act of nation-building entrepreneurship is that it all came together in the fragile years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the formation of the United States as a unified nation.
The British had strictly prohibited American colonists from trading directly with the Middle Kingdom, and it became one of the Americans’ first thoughts after they won independence. The Empress’s respectable 25 percent profit from her first voyage inspired a steady flow of American merchant ships not only to China, but also to develop trading networks throughout the Asia-Pacific region while en route to Guangzhou. It was the lure of the China trade that made the United States a truly global trading nation.
Alas, as soon as the Empress arrived in China in 1785, the American traders hated being there — and they hated it for the next 70 years. We know from their letters that they hated the distance, the food, the language, the people and they really hated being confined to Macao and a tiny sliver of Guangzhou.
For example, in September 1839, John D. Sword, a Philadelphia merchant just 10 weeks into his posting in Guangzhou, wrote to his mother: “I feel very lonesome and shall be very glad when I break up housekeeping in this part of the world to return to my home — I have been here two months & a half & am more than six months from home, and have not yet received a single letter or heard from you.”
Over a decade later, clipper ships had quickened travel across the Pacific but still did not satisfy American residents in Guangzhou such as Thomas Walsh, who wrote to his father in 1851: “To a person who has been accustomed to read the newspaper every morning and by its means to march along with the progress of the civilized world, with but little labor, the seclusion which he must submit to here between the arrivals of the mail is in some causing a feeling similar to that of the anxious man who tosses about wearily through the slow night, impatient for the dawn.”
Many also expressed extreme Sinophobia. For example, Charles Nordhoff was born in Prussia, raised in Ohio and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 15 before soon becoming a merchant sailor and whaler, then ultimately a prolific journalist and author. Despite that cosmopolitan résumé, his memoir records an ugly sentiment: “The queer little Chinese children were my great delight. A little China-man is like a little pig, or more yet like a little elephant: he is born with the same face, the same sedate look, and has (in their incipiency, of course,) the identical tail, and the old-fashioned ways which he will have when he arrives at old age.”
These few examples are broadly emblematic of a festering, centuries-old sentiment that later inspired anti-Chinese immigration policies, the razing of Chinatowns during pandemics and now harassment of Asian Americans throughout the United States, including of physicians treating patients.
And yet, here’s the thing: Americans kept going to China, year after year, driven by consumer demand and hopes of riches. Some familiar American dynasties, such as Forbes, Delano, Astor and Low, all owed their fortunes to the China trade — though they are now best remembered for their deeds after bringing that seed money back to the United States and reinvesting it in manufacturing, land and infrastructure, which helped turn the United States into an economic superpower.
They didn’t just bring back their own capital. They also brought the significant resources of Wu Bingjian, also known as Howqua, a Hong merchant and at one time the world’s richest man. He was a critical early investor in John Murray Forbes’s investment bank, and his money helped build American factories, canals and railroads. With his proceeds from the China trade, Abiel Abbot Low, likewise, invested in railroads and the first transatlantic cable, and his son, Seth Low, drew from that inherited wealth to build the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University. This legacy is now largely forgotten.
Banning popular apps, closing a consulate and encouraging chants of “Kung flu” are unlikely to be Trump’s final ploys to heighten U.S.-Chinese political tensions and fuel Sinophobia before November. These tensions and Sinophobia may subside after the coronavirus pandemic wanes but will surely return as the U.S. global share of GDP recedes and China’s economy and military ambitions grow.
As that happens, it will be important to keep in mind that while Americans’ dislike of China and the Chinese is one of the most persistent features of U.S.-China relations, so is the ability to set aside such prejudices and begrudgingly cooperate when science and trade demand it.