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China Bitterly Recalls 'National Humiliations'

April 10, 2001|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail:

Of course the Chinese should release the U.S. service personnel being held on Hainan island immediately. But it's worth pausing over what might be motivating China not to release them.

One possible explanation, to be sure, is that the People's Republic of China is an evil empire. But another is that the people of China--enough of them, at least--harbor deep grudges against the West, including the United States, and that those hostilities manifest themselves in irrational, even cruel, ways. If, as Vice President Dick Cheney said on Sunday, "every day that goes by without having it resolved raises the risks to the long-term relationship," then it's worth looking at the totality of China's long-term relationships with the U.S. and the West.

For most of the last two centuries, China suffered at the hands of Westerners. In 1839, the country enacted drastic laws against the opium trade that was run by the British. The Chinese arrested British drug traffickers and seized about 2.5 million pounds of opium. The British went to war to keep the trade going, winning easily. China was forced to surrender Hong Kong as well as to pay a huge indemnity. And, of course, the British were free to push drugs. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Westerners, including Americans, poured into China, motivated by everything from greed to evangelism.

In 1898, a Chinese group, the Society of Righteous Harmonious Fists, began a violent uprising against foreigners. Eight Western nations, including the U.S., sent soldiers to suppress the nationalist group, whose name was carelessly translated as "Boxers." A sense of Western attitudes toward China back then might be gleaned from the words of Kaiser Wilhelm II to German troops embarking on their China expedition: "When you come upon the enemy, smite him. . . . Once, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one still potent in legend and tradition. May you in this way make the name German remembered in China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German!"

Western troops easily put down the rebellion, not only capturing Beijing but also looting the Forbidden City. Total Western deaths: about 250. Total Chinese deaths: in the tens of thousands. One who spoke out against such bloody imperialism was Mark Twain. "On this question," he said in a speech in 1900, "I am with the Boxers every time. The Boxer is a patriot. He loves his country."

Twain was unheeded, of course, and for the next half-century, China was at the mercy of first the West, then the Japanese. Most Americans probably don't know this history, because invaders tend to forget faster than invadees. Few Ohioans today, for example, have occasion to think about their native son, Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, but many Georgians today still know about Sherman's "March to the Sea" in 1864--because his bloody and incendiary rampage occurred on their home soil. And so it is that Chinese schoolchildren, long before the Communist era, were schooled to remember with bitterness a century of "unequal treaties" and "national humiliations."

Americans angry about the Hainan incident right now might not care about China's historical grievances against Christendom, but ignorance of a potential foe can lead to real tragedy, as the U.S. discovered in 1950.

In June of that year, Washington intervened to defend South Korea from an attack by North Korea. Going far beyond his mandate to push the Communist aggressors back to the original border, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur sought to liberate all of North Korea. But in October, the Chinese, warily watching U.S. forces moving closer to their own border, intervened themselves. As a result, a conflict that might have lasted six months--ending in U.S. triumph--lasted more than three years, ending in a stalemate that cost 37,000 American lives.

China may be an evil empire, but it is demonstrably less evil than it was during the Maoist era. It will always be China, however, with memories and experiences that few Americans understand. And so it behooves us to know more about the country we're dealing with, not because China is right in this instance, but because perhaps we can avoid another war.

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