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Opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

How the United States always ‘gets China wrong’

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare to shake hands after a joint press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017.Andy Wong/Associated Press

For more than 20 years it had been an article of faith that China, as it got more prosperous, would become more like the Western democracies. China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the Western-designed, post-World War II order, it was argued, and Democracy would gradually replace autocracy.

Now that China’s president, Xi Jinping, has gathered all power to himself in a manner not seen since Chairman Mao, changing the constitution so he can remain president for life, the world’s most populous country, and soon to be its richest, is moving rapidly toward dictatorship, not democracy. China watchers around the world are wondering, as The Economist put it: “How the West got China wrong.


In fact, the United Stares has a long history of wishful thinking about China, going back to the 19th century. Take the case of one of America’s first Protestant missionaries in China, Issachar Roberts, a fiery preacher from Tennessee, and a young Chinese named Hong Xiuquan. Back then the article of faith was that, given a chance, China would want to become a Christian country — preferably Protestant — and would then open up to American ideas, American thinking, and American business. When Hong came to Roberts to learn the gospel, in 1847, he was quick to learn the ways of the Baptist Church and the tenets of the Christian Bible, but the encounter did not turn out as Roberts would have wished.

For instead of going home and spreading the gospel, Hong convinced himself that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He then led a rebellion of the discontented, who rose up against the ruling Qing Dynasty in one of the greatest calamities of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion, which claimed the lives of nearly 40 million people before it burned itself out. As a result, China’s suspicion of Christianity remains to this day.


“Their story — a proselytizer of American values expecting pro-American changes in China, and a Chinese revolutionary counting on American support — would play out again and again with the same outcome: disenchantment on both sides,” wrote John Pomfret in his history of Sino-American relations.

President Woodrow Wilson, for example, was very encouraged by the fact that China’s first president after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Sun Yat-sen, had converted to Christianity. But it was Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, who betrayed China, going against his principles of “self-determination,” embedded in his 14 points, by awarding Japan Chinese territory that Japan had captured from the Germans in 1917. The resulting demonstrations against Wilson’s decision led to the “May 4th Movement,” a reexamining of China’s values and its place in the world. China’s disillusionment with American ideals led to authoritarian solutions by Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang, and the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921.

After World War II, with the beginning of the Cold War, Democracy replaced Christianity as the lodestar of American expectations and wishful thinking for China. The US backed Chiang Kai-shek to defeat Mao’s Communists, but Chiang proved to be no democrat, and he lost to Mao, who was even less of a democrat.

Then, when China began turning away from the economic theories of Marxist-Leninism in the 1970s, adopting some aspects of a free market, Americans wishfully thought that China was on its way toward adopting Western values. But the truth has always been that China will in the end go its own way, for good or ill, regardless of Western expectations, hopes, and wishful thinking.


H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”