Tuesday August 20, 2019

Reflections on the Evolution of U.S.-China Relations

Dr. Chi Wang

Left: Chi Wang with his mother, Lo Shuyi, in the early 1930s; Right: Chi Wang maternal family photo, 1948. This was the last photo of Chi Wang with his mother (third from left), who was killed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Left: Chi Wang with his mother, Lo Shuyi, in the early 1930s; Right: Chi Wang maternal family photo, 1948. This was the last photo of Chi Wang with his mother (third from left), who was killed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Seven decades ago, I left my family in Beijing and began to make my way to the United States. While the decision was made quickly, with the eagerness of youth, the journey itself was much more difficult and would change the course of my future in ways I had not expected. I began my trip in a country torn apart by civil war after having only just survived Japanese occupation. Cities were rapidly changing hands, travel routes were cut off, and the base of operations for the Republic of China (ROC) government, who ultimately issued my passport, had been relocated multiple times during the course of the fighting. It took me months to finally arrive in the United States.

Tiananmen Square with a photo of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek before the People's Republic of China was founded.

Tiananmen Square with a photo of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek before the People’s Republic of China was founded.

My plan had been to study in the United States, like my older brothers had, and then return to China. At my father’s urging I even chose to study agricultural science, the degree he saw as most beneficial for my home country, with its large population and limited arable land. Shortly after I arrived in the U.S., however, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded and everything changed. Between a passport belonging to a government that had been exiled to Taipei, a Cold War cutting off communication with my family who still lived in what was now Communist China, and a Cultural Revolution causing domestic turmoil on the mainland, circumstances made it impossible for me to return to China. While I had limited contact with my family, my father did send a letter to me after I graduated college, just as the Great Leap Forward was causing widespread famine. His message – don’t return to China. I was left isolated from my family and without a recognizable home to go back to.

Chi Wang posing with other Chinese students in Chinatown  the day after arriving in America, September 14, 1949.

Chi Wang posing with other Chinese students in Chinatown the day after arriving in America, September 14, 1949.

Although it had not been my plan, I adapted, and soon the U.S. became my adopted home. I will be forever grateful for the many Americans who made me feel welcome here as I tried to adjust to the new and unexpected realities of my situation and build a life for myself from scratch. I ultimately became a U.S. citizen and, while I still loved the country of my birth, I was happy with my decision. China had changed a lot since I moved away, but the U.S. offered me a chance to pursue the American dream that had inspired me to come here in the first place.

Chi Wang standing in front of Manhattan College, September 1949.  He studied here for one year before transferring to the University of Maryland.

Chi Wang standing in front of Manhattan College, September 1949. He studied here for one year before transferring to the University of Maryland.

A lot has happened in the 70 years since I moved to the U.S. and the PRC was founded. That year marked both the pivotal turning point in my own life and in the history of China. In the decades since then, I have been fortunate enough to witness – and in some ways even contribute to – many other milestones as well. For instance, this year we remember the 40th anniversary of the U.S. and the PRC establishing official diplomatic relations. It is also 30 years since the Tiananmen Incident took place and a full 100 years after the May Fourth Movement.

Taken together, these anniversaries offer a telling timeline of China’s history and help us better understand China and the U.S.-China relationship today. The May Fourth Movement, in its simplest terms, was a protest against the unfair distribution of post-war territory decided by the Treaty of Versailles. Its wider implications, however, were much greater. This nationalist, anti-imperialist, and political movement showcased a Chinese people turning away from their past Confucian ideals and trying to find a new identity. It was this hope for a new culture, separate from the shortcomings of Imperial China, that inspired the formation of political organizations such as the Chinese Communist Party.

Chi Wang with his first American car, Maryland, 1950

Chi Wang with his first American car, Maryland, 1950

By 1949, the Chinese Communist Party had gained control of China and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China – the start of a New China. That New China, however, was still saddled with the aftermath of both a world war and a civil war. The global climate created by the ongoing Cold War left the country even more isolated. The people suffered famine and hunger due to the Great Leap Forward and failed reform efforts. The country devolved into further chaos with the Cultural Revolution. China stagnated and floundered while the Western world recovered from WWII and continued to grow. This was not the strong, new country the protesters of the May Fourth Movement had envisioned.

I remember the propaganda and rhetoric that permeated the civil war period in China. Chiang’s leadership was corrupt and crumbling. Mao’s proletariat revolution called for a new system, a “New Democracy,” that fit with the unique culture and circumstances found in China. While many people were excited and looking forward to the end of feudalism and the formation of a government that better served the people, I was hesitant.

Visiting his father’s grave in 1972. Chi Wang’s father, General Wang Shu-chang, passed away while he was in the United States.

Visiting his father’s grave in 1972. Chi Wang’s father, General Wang Shu-chang, passed away while he was in the United States.

As the civil war neared its end, I chose to leave for the U.S. instead of waiting to find out what a New China would bring. I’m glad I did. The exiled Republic of China government in Taiwan transformed into a democracy and experienced impressive economic growth. The New China on the mainland, however, remained as authoritarian as ever and suffered through poverty and domestic instability.

Then, relations between the U.S. and China began to thaw. President Nixon went to China in 1972. I soon followed, sent by the U.S. government to help establish educational exchanges. I saw firsthand the state China was in. I was shocked by the poverty I saw – this was not the China I remembered. It was clear that China needed to change and undergo economic reforms that would only be possible if they opened up to the West. The establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 gave them the avenue to do just that. It is no surprise that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform and opening up campaign, which he officially launched in 1978, was so swiftly followed up with normalization.

Chi Wang’s siblings meet him in Beijing during his first trip back to China, 1972

Chi Wang’s siblings meet him in Beijing during his first trip back to China, 1972

The perceived benefits of normalization, both economically and as strategic allies against the Soviet Union, encouraged the U.S. and China to overcome their differences and disagreements in order to pursue stronger ties. This belief that the U.S. and China, and the world as a whole, were better off with a positive U.S.-China relationship persisted in the following decades. The U.S. followed an engagement policy and welcomed China to become a responsible member of the international system.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government violently and swiftly put an end to protests in Tiananmen Square. This bloody reaction shocked the international community and risked the previous progress made in the U.S.-China relationship. It caused many to question the long-standing belief that economic reform would lead to democratization, a belief most China watchers today have given up on. China has been under authoritarian rule for centuries, long before the Communist Party came to power. That’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Left: Chi Wang shakes hands with then Vice President Xi Jinping, 2012; Right: Chi Wang with President Hu Jintao, 2006

Left: Chi Wang shakes hands with then Vice President Xi Jinping, 2012; Right: Chi Wang with President Hu Jintao, 2006

The U.S.-China relationship ultimately found a way to survive. While there are several fundamental areas of conflict and discord that create hurdles to bilateral ties, the relationship persists. Our ability to move past conflict and find ways to cooperate despite major disagreements is a testament to the importance both sides place on the relationship.

Today, the U.S.-China relationship is more strained than I’ve ever seen it – and I witnessed the aftermath of Tiananmen. China has reached a level of strength that allows it to challenge U.S. supremacy and the U.S., frustrated by the failure of engagement to Westernize China, have begun to shift their policies, demanding more reciprocity and accountability.

(L to R): Amb. Arthur Hummel, Jr., Amb. John Holdridge, Amb. Jim Sasser, Chi Wang

(L to R): Amb. Arthur Hummel, Jr., Amb. John Holdridge, Amb. Jim Sasser, Chi Wang

It is time to reevaluate the dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship and how we approach our differences. The idealism of past engagement was wrong. We need to be realistic in our expectations and view of China – we cannot expect them to act the same way we would or embrace American values. While we look forward, however, it is important to also look back and see how far China and the U.S.-China relationship has come.

China today is unrecognizable from the country of my youth, and even from the country of 15 years ago. It is impossible for the U.S. and China to go back to the days before normalization. Too much has happened since then to turn back the clock. Thanks to globalization, the U.S. and China are economically intertwined and shocks to one country affect the other, along with the entire globe. There are also an increasing number of global challenges that cannot be tackled by one country alone. Where international support is needed, both the U.S. and China will have to play leading roles. With the stakes so high, we cannot afford to give up on the U.S.-China relationship now.


Dr. Chi Wang spent nearly fifty years working at the Library of Congress, where he oversaw the development of the Library’s Chinese collection. He served as the Assistant Head of the Chinese and Korean Section from 1966 to 1975, when he was appointed head of the Chinese and Korean Section. He served in this position until his retirement in 2004. Wang is the president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and has played an active role in the promotion of U.S.-China relations since the 1960s.
Originally published in the Washington Journal of Modern China, Vol 15., Spring 2019