Today, both America and China see themselves as victims. Americans recall that China fueled its growth through the economic globalization the US had promoted, while also stealing, as they see it, American jobs and intellectual property.10 This view is shared by both political parties and a great majority of the American people – a unique case of unanimity in America’s deeply polarized political landscape, and a worrying sign that a dispassionate debate with diverging views on China has become difficult. The Chinese, on the other hand, recall their “century of humiliation” when they were defeated, humiliated, and robbed by the West, Russia, and Japan. President Xi Jinping has returned to this complaint more than once. This unresolved resentment is an open wound that the West ignores at its own peril. China is using it as a political tool. This is one reason for Chinese feelings of affinity with Jews and Israel: the Jews too have suffered; should they not understand China? There is a link between China’s bitter historical memory and its current attitude toward the West, particularly its trade and intellectual property practices, which have triggered US retaliation. Ironically, the American19th century military intervention in China was modest compared to that of Japan and Europe.11 However, no country can tolerate a policy of permanent revenge by one of the two main stake-holders of the global economy. But American hostility to the Chinese also has an older pre-history. China was already on the receiving end of American and Western antipathy in the 19th century, when it threatened no foreign country. The fear of the “Yellow Peril” was one of the West’s most pervasive and racist stereotypes. German Emperor Wilhelm II, warning of the Yellow Peril, prohibited the purchase of East Asian art by the famous imperial art museums in Berlin under his tutelage. The first Chinese art donations to the Berlin museums were made by German Jewish collectors.12
The “Office of the Historian” of the US State Department has drawn up a chronology of about 120 events that dot the US-China relationship from 1784 to 2000.13 These events oscillate between “positive” ones – meetings, agreements, treaties – and “negative” ones – disagreements, clashes, ruptures. After 1911 when Sun Yatsen overthrew the Qing dynasty and created the Republic of China, the US started to help China. The US-China relationship peaked in 1942 with a close military alliance against Japan. But even then there were enormous misunderstandings between the two. The commander of the allied forces, General Joe Stillwell, admired the resilience and cheerfulness of the Chinese and battled to reform the Chinese army. Alas, he failed. His biographer, the historian Barbara Tuchman, saw in his failure a symbol of “the American Experience in China”: America’s generosity toward China and its failure to change the country going hand in hand. She understood the culture gap between the two, not least because she was Jewish and familiar with more than one culture. This is how her book ends: “China was a problem for which there was no American solution….It could not hold up a husk nor long delay the cyclical passing of the mandate of heaven. In the end China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.”14
The mutual hostility between the US and China following the Communist victory in the Civil War (1949) was mitigated by the Beijing visits of Henry Kissinger and President Nixon (1971, 1972). Apart from a Taiwan crisis, there was a relatively stable period between the two until the Tiananmen catastrophe (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). Then, China’s military and economic rise became major US concerns. China’s unabated growth was a challenge the United States had never faced before, except for Japan for a short period in the 1970s. In the 20th century, the United States was confronted by four great power challengers: Imperial Germany in World War I, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. None of the four ever challenged America economically. All four raised only military challenges. America knocked out Japan and the Soviet Union and twice helped to knock out Germany with military power enhanced by its economic power. China is different. It is challenging America with many of the same economic assets that have made America great: hard work, technological development, large transport and other infrastructure investments, international trade, but also in China’s case, disregard for intellectual property. When President Trump launched his “Trade War” against China (2018), he brought a tectonic shift between the two powers into the open. This was not a sudden quirk by a president accused of being unpredictable. It was the culmination of a process that had started years before.